In India, popular perception in religious art largely spread through calendars, posters and periodicals. These colourful works of art were important in reinforcing images that we instantly recognise today. For instance, if we were to try to imagine Rama’s coronation in Ayodhya, it would be something like this — Rama and Sita seated on the royal throne with Hanuman bowing at their feet. Rama’s brothers, Lakshmana, Bharata and Shatrughna are in attendance, as is the Vanar king Sugreeva. The royal priest, Vashishta, is busy conducting the ceremony.
It is a gloriously celebratory image, but uni dimensional, and oh-so-safe-and-recognisable, if you know what I mean. And frankly, quite boring as the expressions on all the faces are fixed and beatific.
But then, sometimes, one comes across depictions that shakes you out of the boredom and makes you look at the same thing all over again, but with delight this time.
I came across two artifacts/tableaus on Rama’s coronation at at Mumbai’s Bhau Daji Lad Museum. Though both were instantly recognisable for what they depicted, they had more than an element of surprise on offer. Here is the first one:
It is quite fascinating how popular culture, iconography and art shape, influence and reiterate perception, both consciously and unconsciously. Anything that is different from the familiar is either missed or dismissed as a gimmick. In rare cases, it opens up a whole new world and triggers off a new understanding. Something like this happened in February when I visited the Jaisalmer Fort Palace Museum at the Jaisalmer Fort, where I was forced to acknowledge that I was not immune to internalising popular perception.
I was at the sculpture gallery at the Museum and idly registering apsaras or dancing girls, a Saraswati, a carved panel, and a bearded figure with a bow. Though the pose of the figure appeared relaxed, it’s expression said otherwise—fierce eyes, and a grim and stern countenance seemed to radiate tension. While, the arrow in the figure’s hands and the bow slung on it’s back suggested a brave warrior, the elaborate crown and extended ear lobes from heavy earrings suggested a that this was, perhaps, the figure of a king.
So who was it, I asked myself. When I saw the information board for this sculpture, I almost dropped my camera !
I’ve had tea and coffee out of dainty porcelain cups, chunky stoneware mugs, paper cups and glasses, kulhads (terracotta cups), steel tumblers… In other words, in just about every other type of material possible. And I suppose, so would you.
And then I came across this coffee set at the Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum and realised that I had neither seen anything like this or had coffee/tea out of something like this !
Though I don’t wear much jewellery, especially gold, it doesn’t stop me from admiring it. I love to look and trace the stories conveyed through the jewellery designs with my personal choice veering towards traditional designs in jewellery. In fact, more traditional a piece, the more I like it and feel a connection to it.
The information plaque revealed that all the pieces exhibited in this showcase were acquired through private collectors. Made in various parts of Tamil Nadu, they ranged in age from mid-eighteenth to the early 20th century.
Lets see what each ornament has to say about itself:
What if I were to tell that there exists a cup so mystical and magical that it has the power of detecting poison. Would you believe me? No? I thought not, and honestly I wouldn’t believe it if someone had told me about this.
But nevertheless, such a cup did exist about six centuries ago in Central Asia. It was a time of great upheaval and power struggle in the region when old dynasties were giving way to the new. Often caught in the crossfire of the conflict between the East and the West, it was also a time of great suspicion, prejudice and uncertainties in this region. Such an atmosphere was perfect for beliefs in charms and talismans to take root and grow. And the belief in protection was vested in Jade, a compact, opaque gemstone ranging in color from dark green to almost white. According to Central Asian belief, jade could detect poison and could also protect one from illness, earthquakes and lightning. Soldiers from this region often decorated their swords, belts and saddles with jade.
So, to get back our the story of the cup with the power to detect poison… it is made of jade and once belonged to the mathematician, astronomer and prince of the Timurid Empire, Ulugh Beg. Today, that jade cup is an exhibit in the Islāmic Room of the British Museum in London.
There is a room in the British Museum at London that, perhaps, receives more visitors than others. This room is a veritable treasure trove of Egyptian artifacts — there are busts of pharaohs, sculptures of Egyptian gods and goddesses, sarcophagi, giant scarabs, ships, and what not. A giant bust of Rameses II towers over the exhibits and it is quite difficult to notice the other exhibits under it’s rather overwhelming gaze.
Therefore, it was only on my third or fourth visit to the British Museum that I saw the “Limestone door of Ptahshepses” properly. I mean, I had noticed it before, but had not actually seen it, if you know what I mean.
The Limestone Door
That day, I spent quite some time searching for the mechanism that operated the beautiful and imposing door. I mean it was a door wasn’t it? Which meant that it would open and close. Right? Wrong. If only I knew how to read the hieroglyphics on the door or had read the information plaque carefully, I would have saved myself I would have saved myself those minutes of growing frustration.