Category Archives: Art & Culture

Rats! Not Exactly on the Bucket List

Although India ought to be on the list of world cultures that one visits in a lifetime of travel, it is probably not for all travelers. Well, let me modify that with a caveat. If one includes the category of luxury travel where one essentially floats through an environment in an air-conditioned, antiseptic bubble with your personal Jeeves at the beck and call… if that is your cup of Darjeeling them yes, Incredible India may be for you, too.

One of the Must-Do’s not on my India Bucket List, however, was the Karni Mata Temple in Deshnoke, Rajasthan. It draws Indian pilgrims from far and wide with a smattering of tourists thrown in (I saw one, presumably non-Indian, European while I visited.) But there are about 25,000 kabbas resident here (give or take; I saw a dead one on my exploration.)

A Wikipedia entry, taken from the Lonely Planet travel guide, explains the place best:

“Legend has it that Laxman, Karni Mata’s stepson (or the son of one of her storytellers), drowned in a pond… while he was attempting to drink from it. Karni Mata implored Yama, the god of death, to revive him. First refusing, Yama eventually relented, permitting Laxman and all of Karni Mata’s male children to be reincarnated as rats.”

Yes, you read that correctly; a kabba is a rat. Specifically, it is a member of the species Rattus rattus, the lovable black rat, every child’s idea of the perfect pet and not to be confused with its more malleable cousin, Rattus norvegicus, the brown, better known as the Norway or Sewer, rat. Everyone on the planet knows this latter beastie because it is the staple of research laboratories, pet stores and is, alas, the most successful and common mammal on the planet – with the notable exception of humans. Only Antarctica has been spared (for now).

Rats Feeding on Milk & Water - Karni Mata Temple
Rats Feeding on Milk & Water – Karni Mata Temple, Rajasthan, India

While I was looking up at the acre of wire mesh that covers the mostly open-air compound and thinking of Yersinia pestis, the bubonic plague, a kabba, scurrying to a destination unknown to me, ran over my right foot. This is considered especially lucky, bestowing only good things upon one so blessed. To my credit I did not scream.

I think the overhead wire mesh is to keep out the large numbers of Columbidae livia, rock doves, whose planetary feral populations have exploded. (I will go out on a limb right now and hazard that they are number three on the list of earth’s most cosmopolitan mammals.) You and I, and everyone else we know, simply call this bird a pigeon. It is a certainty that these rats-on-wings would dive in and settle down to eat the ample food stores spread around for the kabbas, for India, as elsewhere, is profoundly inundated with pigeons. The wire screen roof also keeps out India’s many birds of prey. It would be bad form to let any of the temple’s 25,ooo holy inhabitants end up as meals-that-squeals.

Naturally, there is a distinct odor to the complex, one that might charitably be called barnyardy. I suppose it is a combination of the mammal residents, the food spread around by visitors and the excrement left after the food is eaten. As if to get even for their exclusion, there is also an unfair amount of pigeon poop because the wire screening cannot, of course, keep it from dropping in to pay its respects to the unfairly favored King Rat.

As with all India’s sacred spaces, shoes are verboten! 99% of pilgrims leave theirs helter-skelter in the street-cum-public-square in front of the temple, tho there is an official concession for footwear storage just a few meters beyond. The attendants looked lonely so I used it. (No, that’s a lie: they were not lonely; so many people had looked Keenly at my sandals I was worried about some less-than-honest pilgrim waddling off in them so checked my sandals properly.) The shoe storage sits at one end of the row of kitschy concessions lining two sides of the square. All sell sweets, snacks and every tacky knick-knack known to rat-dom (don’t groan, I could have written ‘ratty’ instead of ‘tacky’.) The atmosphere would not be out of place as the Midway of a 1960s circus with touts trying to snare passers-by one and all. I, in thoughtful foresight, wore a pair of those little hospital socks with grippy pads on the soles as an ensemble with my sandals. Lord (Krishna) knows if I would have had the fortitude to cross the street and enter the temple with feet unclad by sox once I checked my Keens into official care.

On a highbrow note, there is excellent architecture to indulge in and a set of solid silver doors, even if the bulk of the temple is painted Pepto-Bismol pink. My one complaint is that the large marble lions outside really ought to have been over-sized King Rats. Attendees may cast this as a matter of little consequence; the lions are rarely visible because of the hordes of Indians who lounge over them executing self-portraits. The European visitor and myself were the only ones I saw actually taking pictures of the temple; everyone else simply used the temple and its parts as their selfie back-drop, as is the case at every other site in India. At least Karni Mata is on flat, solid ground. The railings at the battlements of forts and palaces have oftentimes been installed after someone forgets they are hundreds of meters in the air and leans back for a better facial photo extension. I am not making this up.

For you early birds Karna Mata opens at 4:00 am. It is dark then so for the squeamish maybe that would be the best time to go. As there is so much food about, and rats are easily distracted, there is ample tucker for one and all, including you, dear visitor. It is said that eating food nibbled on by the rats is a high honor. If you will, please let me know how that works out. Also let me know if you see one of the rare white rats. You guessed it: that is also an auspicious honor. In this particular quest I failed. I thought to dash out and cross the square to find a flute (probably available as one is always shown with Krishna in a playing posture) and I’m sure a pied suit could have been procured, as well. Then I came to my senses and ended this line of reverie. Who wants to end up as a fatality statistic after luring all the rats out of Karni Mata just to sight a white one?

Some of you reading this may take my tone amiss, as a bit of unenlightened, agnostic snark. Please do not interpret my remarks this way: for those who travel, if you do not go to India you will have missed a precious and wonderful chapter of the human novel!

Well, that about sums up this installment except to write that while there are many monkey temples in India, Karna Mata is unique, as far as I know. And I am satisfied to report: Been there! Done that!

A Sonnet

(with apologies to Miss Freeman, my 8th grade English teacher, from whom I learned the proper setup of an octave and a sestet for the Petrarchan, Spenserian and Shakespearean sonnet forms. First know the artistic rules and then feel free to break them.)

Welcome to Mother India
Wellspring of Religions galore
You’ve probably Tech-Talked to us
Way down in Bangalore

East meets West – We’ve all the Best
Paintings with Class; our Jewelry – a Blast
Music and Dance; Textiles that Prance
Stone sculptures of Schist; Ah… feelings of bliss.

But, as in any form of living thing, mi’ lad
Good lives not unalloyed with the bad
Meditate on this,
Hurriedly or at Ease:

Enter India if you Please
At some small personal Risk.

R.I.P. Richard “Dick” Claxton Gregory

Richard “Dick” Claxton Gregory
(12 October 1932, St. Louis, Missouri – 19 August 2017, Washington, D.C.)

Dick Gregory Lecturing at Wright State University, April 1973
Photo: Wilbur Norman

Dick Gregory, U.S. Army veteran, urbane comedian-turned-social activist and writer, actor, businessman and provocateur par excellence, died yesterday at the age of 84. I first met him in April 1973 when he spoke at Wright State University. I would then run into him at various events around the East Coast. I think the last time I saw him must have been in 1987 when he was arrested protesting apartheid in front of the South African Embassy in Washington, DC.

He could keep up a biting and satirical running commentary better than anyone I have ever met, no doubt from practice as a stand-up comedian in his early career. That career was given a big boost by his appearance on The Jack Paar Tonight Show in 1961.

After turning down invitations to perform on the show he was called by Paar to find out why. (Billy Eckstine had told Gregory no black performer was ever asked to sit on the couch after their act.) Gregory told Paar that the reason he was not willing to perform on The Tonight Show was “because a Negro has never been able to finish the act and walk to the couch.” The show’s producers changed this policy, making Gregory the first African American to take the couch and talk with Paar after a stage appearance!

A Lie of the Mind – ‘Trauma, Mystery, Grief’. Samuel Shepard Rogers III

Although I certainly cannot say I knew him, I ran into Sam Shepard (5 November 1943 – 27 July 2017) more frequently than almost any other famous person I have ever ‘known’. And, some of those times I would only realize it was him after he had moved on.

On a blustery early evening in March or April about eight years ago, I was leaving the Asian Tribal Art Show on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street in NYC, head down to counter the cold, when he breezed by me in a stride as brisk as the wind, cowboy hat pulled low over his forehead and the collar of his shearling coat cinched up high; I only realized it was him after he had passed by. But where I saw him most often was in Santa Fe at the great bookstore Op Cit. He was an avid reader (or an avid book buyer) and he would bend his tall frame over, pick up a paperback and check it out much like any lover of the printed word.

And word lover he was in both consumption and production: 55 plays, 50 films, a dozen plus TV roles and at least 7 books that were not plays. Among his additional talents were banjo picker, song writer, Obie Award collector (I believe he holds the record at 10 wins) and voice actor for the audio book of Spaulding Gray’s last monologue. He avidly avoided aviation travel but was sometimes guilty of driving under the influence.

Mr. Shepard turned the final page last Thursday from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, popularly called Lou Gehrig’s disease in the U.S. and motor neurone disease (MND) in Britain.

He and his writing will be much missed.

_____
“Sam always wrote from that place — a zone of trauma, mystery and grief. Whether the play was more mainstream or experimental in its conception, he took the big risk every time.” – playwright Christopher Shinn, The NY Times, July 31, 2017.

何藩 / Fan Ho – R.I.P.

Photographer-Filmmaker Fan Ho / 何藩
(8 October 1937, Shanghai – 19 June 2016, San Jose, CA)

fan-ho-as-evening-hurries-by

As Evening Hurries By. One of the photographer’s own favorites.

Somehow I missed the notice that one of my handful of favorite photographers, Fan Ho, passed to that darkroom in the sky in June of this year at the age of 78. (Many biographies list his birth as 1931.)

In the 1950s and the 1960s, Fan Ho stalked the streets, alleys, tenements, waterways and markets of Hong Kong with his Rollei Twin Lens Reflex, possessed of a deft compositional sense and a patient* eye for light and shadow. In so doing he inadvertently documented a city that would morph into the great metropolis it is today. His poignant, compassionate and artful portfolio from this time relates a humanist sentiment highlighted by a geometric touch salted with intriguing chiaroscuro. He was able, equally, to portray Hong Kong as a hive of activity or as a nearly deserted monument to the individual.

It is unfortunate today that many young photographers are not familiar with his work. For those who are, one of the facts they know is that the Photographic Society of America consistently listed Ho as one of the world’s top ten photographers every year from 1958 to 1965. He was the recipient of some 300 photography awards over a long career and also directed 27 films (also acting in a few!) His diversity sprung, no doubt, from his feeling that, “I hate to repeat myself.”

What is probably less known is that Fan Ho had a self-deprecating and very refined sense of humour; his wit was infectious and ever-present.

Fan Ho was about the last of a generation of image-makers who made photography the modern expression we see today.

He will be missed.

fan-ho-approaching-shadow-1954

* Approaching Shadow (1954). For many years I marveled at this photograph and thought of it as one of the small number of decisive moment masterpieces. Now that I know more about it I still find it entirely captivating as, apparently, did the buyer at Bonhams (Hong Kong) in 2015 who purchased it for HK$375,000 (US$48,000), a Fan Ho record. In fact, Ho used his niece for the model against the wall and a draughtsman’s triangle in the darkroom to create that dramatic edge of shadow! To me the artist’s darkroom manipulation makes this image no less great.

Still the Greatest! RIP Mohammed Ali (1942-2016)

“It was his beauty that beat me.” – George Foreman

In a world where many noted personalities are famous simply for being… well… famous, Mohammed Ali was a giant, a man who not only had a skill and performed colossal feats with that skill (40 Sports Illustrated covers as of next week attest to this) but who stood for something, as well. Ali became a symbol of hope and aspiration for anyone trying to make something of a life begun in humble or deprived origins, for those forced by circumstance into a life of servitude and despair. How appropriate that he was recognized by both the United Nations and Amnesty International as a world ambassador for peace and justice.

I met Mohahammed Ali once. I had, of course, seen him many times on television, flashing that infectious smile and spouting his sing-song braggadocio. What do you say to the man who was once the world’s highest paid athlete and most recognized face and name on earth (as an American, everywhere I went in Africa in the late 1970s people who could not speak much English would raise their arms and shout “Mohammed Ali!”)? I managed to mumble something about it being a supreme pleasure to finally meet “The Greatest”.

What I was not prepared for was his handshake. Ali took both my hands in his and I still remember, and often mention, that my hands (I’m 6 foot, 1 inch tall) were engulfed in what seemed to me to be two catcher’s mitts enclosing my hand. I immediately thought of what it would be like to be hit by such huge fists and said so. He laughed and slowly threw one of his famous mock punches.*

“If you are still the same person at 50 as you were at 20 then you have wasted 30 years of your life.” – Mohammed Ali

When you are “The Greatest”, so you shall ever remain.

* In Philadelphia I belonged to the same club as Joe Frazier and his hands were similarly sized. Plus, Frazier was not that tall but his shoulders extended far beyond my own when we would stand face to face. He was built like a moving , giant cinder block.

Montaigne’s Tower

It is a nation, would I answer Plato, that hath no kinde of traffike, no knowledge of Letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate… no use of service, of riches or of povertie… no apparell but naturall… no use of wine, corne, or mettle. The very words that import lying, falshood, treason, dissimulations, covetousnes, envie, detraction, and pardon, were never heard of amongst them. How dissonant would hee finde his imaginarie common-wealth from this perfection?
– Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (28 February 1533 – 13 September 1592) Of the Caniballes, translated by John Florio, 1603.

 

The original Château de Montaigne is no longer in existence – except for the Tower where Michel Eyquem had his library and study. It was on this day in 1571, in this “citadel” looking out upon the vineyards, that he began his nearly decade-long self-imposed refuge of reading, thinking and writing. During the next nine years he wrote the first two of his books of essais, a form he did not invent, per se, but for which he is justly famous, developing and refining the personal, discursive eloquence and rich flexibility we associate with the essay form.

His mother’s family were conversos, Spanish Jews converted to Catholicism. Pierre, his father, possessed definite ideas about his son’s education, and had a family fortune inherited from trade in wine and salted fish, to carry it out. Michel was given to peasants to rear for the first three years of his life, so as to know the life of the commoner, and then tutored and addressed only in Latin to learn what would become his first language in both speaking and writing.

Although Montaigne wrote that he preferred conversation to any other form of communication*, it is difficult to imagine, outside pre-literary cultures, a single individual’s ability to pass onto future generations, orally, the insights to be gained by sustained reading of his work; conversation, outside the therapist’s couch, seems to me to have its limits with regard to the revelation of our deepest selves.

It is odd, I think, that, throughout much of history, his essays have been thought of as works of literature rather than works of philosophy. “He moved from a conception of philosophy conceived of as theoretical science, to a philosophy conceived of as the practice of free judgment,” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2009) using the device of solid and numerous references to past thinkers to illuminate the study of his own existence. And all, initially, to exorcise the demon of melancholy to which he became subject at the beginning of those ten years of study looking out over the vineyards.

There is a school of thought that Shakespeare read Montaigne in John Florio’s 1603 translation and used portions of it for his own plays. Here, a selection from The Tempest, Act II, Scene 1, correlating with the quote at the head of the page:

Gonzalo: I’ the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none…
No use of metal, corn, or wine…
… treason, felony, …
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind,…all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.…
….
I would with such perfection govern, sir,
To excel the golden age.

 

* Montaigne’s belief is in direct opposition to his later countryman, Marcel Proust’s idea that, “The artist who gives up an hour of work for an hour of conversation with a friend knows that he is sacrificing a reality for… a superficial digression which gives us nothing worth acquiring. We may talk for a lifetime without doing more than indefinitely repeat the vacuity of a minute.” (A. De Botton, How Proust Can Change Your Life, 1997, pages 118-119.)