national crafts museum, new delhi – 90 minutes at the museum

“A glass pitcher, a wicker basket, a tunic of coarse cloth. Their beauty is inseparable from their function. Handicrafts belong to a world existing before the separation of the useful and the beautiful.”
~ Octavio Paz, Mexican poet

I love this quote by Octavio Paz for it captures the sheer ethos of handicrafts.

Whilst art is pure expression, craft on the other hand is purely utilitarian. Shape, proportion, and colour—all serve a purpose. To be useful.

But just because it is useful, it does not mean it needs to be ugly or even plain. The craftsperson, since time immemorial, has imbued craft with a sense of aesthetics, following a deep-seated human instinct to create beauty. Continue reading

in search of rahim das aka rahim khan, the 16th century warrior-poet

Young Abdur Rahim Khan-I-Khanan being received by Akbar, Akbarnama. V&A Museum, London.

Not all men are made the same. Some are soldiers, and some are poets. And then there are some who wield a sword and pen with equal elan.

This post is the story of one such gentleman in the 16th Century who went by the name Abdur Rahim Khan-I-Khanan. ‘Khan-I-Khanan’ meaning ‘Khan of Khans’, a title given to him by the Mughal Emperors he served: Akbar and Jahangir.

Abdur Rahim Khan-I-Khanan portrait. 1627. Freer Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

Abdur Rahim Khan-I-Khanan was a man of multiple talents: a statesman, courtier, soldier, poet, linguist, humanitarian, and patron. Befittingly, he was also one of Emperor Akbar’s legendary ‘nine jewels’ or navratanas in the Mughal court.

Born to a Muslim father, Bairam Khan, and a Hindu mother in 1556, he was equally proficient in Persian, Arabic and Turki as he was in Sanskrit and Hindavi, his mother tongue. His Portuguese was passable.

His family belonged to the inner circle of the Mughal royal family, serving as companions and tutors to its princes through generations. Though his childhood was marred by the fall of his father’s career and subsequent assassination, he was straightway taken into Emperor Akbar’s court when he was just four years old. A court where pluralism and aristocratic culture thrived under Akbar’s mentorship. It was, thus, no surprise that Abdur Rahim’s manifold innate talents bloomed multi-fold.

History remembers him most for his translation of the Baburnama, Emperor Babur’s biography, and the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, into Persian and some 300 pithy Hindavi dohas or couplets. The latter, written under the pen name of Rahim Das, ooze with a deep insight into the complexities of life and human nature, and form part of India’s school curriculum, even four hundred years after his death. Continue reading

lodi garden: eleven monuments and 7,000 trees

My earliest memories of Lodi Garden are of me sitting cross-legged on the undulated lawns with a drawing board propped against my knees. I was trying to paint a watercolour of the scene in front of me, with let’s say zero success.

No fault of the scenery. Expansive emerald-green manicured gardens with flowering bushes and looming trees were huddled around evocative grey quartzite stone monuments. It was just my watercolouring skills which were questionable.

Each day of these particular week-long assignments, during my undergrad in fine arts, invariably took the same turn. Sometime around mid-day, I would put my drawing board aside and wander through the ruins, oblivious to the world. Something I still tend to do, but that’s a different matter.

Lodi Garden was magical way back then and it still is so. As I found out last week much to my relief. Who wants lovely memories to be killed by ugly changes.

The stark difference between my explorations back then and now, was not the garden, but me.

This time around, older and a bit wiser when it came to Indian history and heritage, I learnt to love and enjoy it more deeply. May I take this opportunity to share my understanding of this place, an integral part of my college days, with you here? If yes, please do read on. 😊

Continue reading

new delhi’s most beautiful church: cathedral church of the redemption

On a quiet tree-lined lane aptly called Church Lane, a stone’s throw from Rashtrapati Bhawan the president’s estate, is New Delhi’s most beautiful church.

Most people in the city, and to the city, are clueless about its existence. Much like I was, and would have been, if it wasn’t for a chance conversation on one of the heritage walks I have been taking since I came to Delhi.

Delhi’s Sultanate and Mughal-era chapters, with their magnificent monuments and dramatic stories, tend to be all-consuming. Yet, the years the British Crown used the city as the capital of their ‘Jewel in the Crown’, from 1931 to 1947, churned out edifices just as spectacular. [Prior to Delhi, Calcutta had been their capital.]

Take for instance Herbert Baker’s North and South Block Secretariat Buildings, Edwin Lutyens’ Viceroy’s House now the Rashtrapati Bhawan, their joint endeavour the Parliament House, and Henry Alexander Medd’s splendid stone church for the Englishman in Delhi—the Cathedral Church of the Redemption. Continue reading

india travel shot: a temple for a rajput biker and his enfield

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Last year, during the months of October-November, I travelled across Rajasthan by road with different cabs for each leg of my 35-day journey. I soon started to notice one constant element across the taxis’ dashboards. They had a framed photo of a young turbaned gentleman, either perched on it or hanging from the rear-view mirror. My first thought was: he must be a relative of the driver. But when the photograph kept cropping up in almost every cab, I was confused. All the drivers could not exactly be related to the same man.

So, I asked, though I really did not want to sound nosy or offend anyone.

What emerged was a story which, I mused, could only happen in India! But before I share the story, I was also told there was a special site associated with the turbaned gentleman and it was on the highway connecting Jodhpur with Udaipur. When I asked rather hesitantly if one could stop at it, my then driver laughed. “Whether you like it or not, your driver will stop there.” Continue reading

36 hours in jodhpur, capital of the kingdom of marwar

“The work of angels, fairies and giants … built by Titans and coloured by the morning sun … He who walks through it loses sense of being among buildings. It is as though he walked through mountain gorges.”
~ Rudyard Kipling, English author, 1900

Kipling was referring to Mehrangarh Fort in the above lines. Jodhpur city’s magnum opus.

It is hard to separate the two. The Fort and the City of Jodhpur.

Jodhpur, or Jodhana as the locals refer to it or Blue City as tourists know it, was established as a result of the fort. Yet, it was the city which sustained the citadel, towering 122 metres above it, for 550 years.

Deep in the heart of the scorching arid Thar Desert, the ensemble seems to be straight out of a fantastical fable. Narrow twisting lanes encircle the foothills of the precipitous rocky outcrop topped with Mehrangarh Fort chiselled out of the rock. Except that it is all for real.

The year was 1459. Rao Jodha, the 15th Rathore clan ruler of the Marwar Kingdom was convinced the old capital Mandore was not safe anymore and set out to find a new one, which he did. A crag with endless views across the plains. He called his new city Jodhpur, after himself.

Priests and traders soon flocked to the city to provide religion and commerce. Rao Jodha’s descendants and their queens not only added palaces to the fort, but also temples and stepwells in the bustling streets below. There was no looking back now. Though the old city has expanded well beyond its city walls and gates to become Rajasthan’s second largest city, its historical heart is easily explored on foot or a tuk tuk.

Here’s a 36-hour itinerary to discover Jodhpur’s wonders. Day 1 for the Have-To’s and Day 2 to feel its pulse. Wishing you happy travels, because some places still appear to be straight out of a fairy-tale. 🙂 Continue reading

stepwells and temples of jodhpur’s old city

Should you find yourself in Jodhpur, one of Rajasthan’s most stunning cities, it is but natural to want to rush off to explore all its tantalizingly magnificent sites. But hey, hold on. Want to get a pulse of the real Jodhpur as well, the one lived by the locals, sans any tourists? You will need to look elsewhere—in its stepwells and temples. That’s where local life pulsates in all its glory.

And that’s what this post is about.

But first a little bit about the Ravana Rajputs, a term you are most likely to come across if you hang around deep and long enough in the city. Why? Because Jodhpur has a sizable population of them. Continue reading

off the travel radar: the secret treasures of historic nagaur

Some 145 kilometres north-east of Jodhpur, translated to a three-hour car ride away, is Nagaur. Tourists are few and far between here. The most you may come across are a handful in a whole day. They are the ones who decide to do a pit-stop in Nagaur en-route from Jaipur or Pushkar to Bikaner.

Yet, its treasures are no less majestic and larger than life than any other city in Rajasthan. And maybe, because of it being off the tourist radar, it is that much more appealing.

Nagaur, the sleepy, quiet town on the ancient trade routes linking Gujarat, Sindh and Multan, is named after the Nagavanshi kings who ruled this area from the 4th to 7th centuries. Nagavanshis claimed descent from Nagas, a semi-divine race of part-serpent part-human beings who resided in the underworld.

It was crucial for Nagaur’s rulers to defend their trading hub since the town was surrounded by miles of flat ground. The Nagavanshis, followed by the Chauhans, Muslims, and from the 18th Century onward, the Rathore Rajputs all built and rebuilt the city’s most impressive and prominent landmark: the Nagaur Fort or Ahhichatragarh meaning the Fort of the Hooded Cobra. Continue reading

art focus – three dimensions of divinity – thanjavur art revealed

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What can one person do? A lot. Never underestimate the efforts of a single individual.

The above thought kept going inside my head, in a loop, as I was reminded of other feats achieved by individual collectors. Such as Dr. Kelkar’s mind-boggling collection of 21,000 artifacts at the Kelkar Museum in Pune and the Jung family’s quirky walking sticks collection at the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad.

Meanwhile, right here in Mumbai, myths, legends, epics, temple layouts, local deities, stories of Hindu gods and goddesses, and 1,300-year-old poet-saints filled the museum walls wherever I looked.

I was standing amidst two centuries of an art style unique to India: The Thanjavur style of painting. Sheathed in jewelled colours and gold leaf, the masterpieces from the classical cities of Thanjavur and Mysuru, glinted and shone in the soft light. Calm in the face of my hard-to-hide awe.

It would be safe to surmise they were used to humans being bowled over by their resplendent beauty. After all, it had been part of their job. They had spent their lifetimes adorning sacred temples and shrines, in the company of gods. Continue reading

lal mandir to jama masjid: the magic of chandni chowk during ramadan

Don’t these jalebis look mouth-watering! They’re fresh from the boiling sugary syrup they’d been dunked into, at the Old Famous Jalebi Wala in Chandni Chowk. And no, the ‘old’ and ‘famous’ are not adjectives but are part of the street-side kiosk’s name. 😊

It is Ramadan, and I have always wanted to explore Chandni Chowk during Islam’s month-long fasting in which come night, this neighbourhood in Old Delhi bursts into one big celebration. Built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and designed by his favourite daughter Jahanara Begum in 1650, it was the main market of Shahjahanabad, Shah Jahan’s capital city in Delhi.

But I was a bit hesitant. The usual qualms. It’s an unfamiliar area. It’s super crowded. Is it safe? Continue reading