02 July, 2008

LIMINALIA

SKETCHES IN VISUAL ANTHROPOLOGY AND AESTHETICS
ECS Magazine, July 2008

I was walking by Thamel in one of those anti-social moods last Friday evening—I had braved my life on a motorbike ride through upstream traffic to get to the Sundhara Bakery Café, only to find out that the art opening I thought was being held wasn’t there. A magician was on stage instead, doing tricks for a birthday party.

Thoroughly confused, I walked back through the crowded microbus stop, stopped to buy books off the footpath, including a 1941 find titled “Everest The Challenge” by Sir Francis Younghusband. Later I learnt the art opening was in the corresponding venue in Pulchowk, not in Sundhara. By the way, can people please stop naming their restaurants “Bakery Café” because it is starting to get very, very confusing for those of us trying to shift through the proliferations of Bakery Cafes…

… when I saw Bidhur waving from the glass window of Vajra Books. Soon we were in an animated conversation, and before long he had shown me the latest books from Vajra Publications—two tiny, exquisitely designed books that just begged to be flipped through. The two books, done in partnership with EVK2CNR Publications, are the works of Italian art historian Alessandra Campoli, and director of a series on Oriental Studies Martino Nicoletti.

“Ritual Art of the Kingdom of Mithila”, by Alessandra Campoli, has 56 tiny photographs of everything from black and white photographs of women engaged in the task of making art to popular mythical and animal motifs that appear in the artwork.

The aripana, traditionally traced on the floor with rice flour, is shown translated on paper.
In photo 14, the footsteps of Vishnu, resting inside a eight-pointed tantric diagram, is surrounded by objects of daily use and symbols. The footsteps lead upward through a leafy, stemlike configuration straight into the domestic hearth. Vishu, the preserver, blesses the home with his presence, while below a farmer ploughs with two oxen.

Like the feet, the eye has central importance and is also used to underline the auspicious character of events. In Photo 39, both Durga and her tiger have a great elliptical eye resting in the center of their faces, while surreal diagrams decorate the background.

Photos 18-20 look at popular representation of nagas, snakes that appear geometrical and abstract in the drawings. Indeed, one of them looks startlingly like DNA, reminding us of the story again of the scientist who discovered the double helix: he dreamt of the snake biting its own tail and awoke in the morning to realize that DNA was double stranded. (Strangely, a Google search on double helix brings up the story that the Nobel Prize winning genius Francis Crick was rumored to have been on LSD when he had that famous dream.)

Talking of LSD: photo 21 to 24 are pretty trippy, showing repeated usage of Garuda to create an endless, infinite repetition of the same design. The folk motifs can often spiral into the surreal, as in the universal dance directed by Krishna.

The lack of perspective in the art situates the artwork as “naïve art,” or less controversially, “folk art.” The use of reds and ochres, the extensive use of mythology along with the reluctance to deviate from traditional subjects places the work in its ritual context—the painting continues to propiate the gods and ask for blessings and prosperity, rather than be a medium of expression.

The short introduction, while fascinating, would have benefited from a discussion of the Janakpuri Women’s Development Center, an influential institution in popularizing the artwork of Janakpuri women. A historical note on its founder, Claire Burkett, as well as the challenges she faced in the early nineties to estabilish this institution, would have given some context. Claire rented a small apartment from my family for a few years starting 1991, and I still remember the piles of Janakpuri women’s art that found its way into that apartment. Interestingly, women painted a lot more bicycles and radios, and women wearing pants, in those days. Either Campoli selectively left out the modern aspects of the artists’ imaginations, or else they’ve stopped painting those elements.

Martino Nicoletti’s “The Ecstasic Body: Notes on Shamanism and Corporeality in Nepal” also features the same style of photographs as the previous book. Nicoletti, born in Perugia in 1968, is director of collection of Cinnabaris (series of oriental studies). The book was such a giftable object I promptly gave it away to two friends who were leaving the country, so I will have to rely on my memory to write this review.

Nicoletti features a series of photographs of shamans from Rai, Tamang and Tibetan cultures. The first series of photographs shows a young man in Solu who has a fit and starts to eat grass. The shaman treats him by making him lie face down on cold water, and soon the man is cured and on his way.

We see both men and women performing the rites of healing. In one photograph, Nicoletti explains that although the female shaman is not fully attired, just the few ritual objects (a dyangro drum, a necklace) is enough to allow the shaman to go into trance and do her ceremony.

In one striking diagram, he includes a shaman’s drawing of his journey to the center of the earth, and the solid rock he has to bypass to come back to earth again. Though humble, the drawing captures the epic nature of the shaman’s journey (parallels could be drawn with modern day heros of the screen, which make millions in films like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars), and makes us realize why we continue to revere them.

The books capture anthropology’s fascination with the visual in an accessible way. If you’re looking for a small gift that would capture the essence of Nepal without weighing down the luggage of departing friends, grab these books. You can be sure they will lean back in their plane seats and have some very interesting thoughts and dreams.

Sushma Joshi has a degree in anthropology from the New School for Social Research. She can be reached at: sushma@alumni.brown.edu