07 February, 2009
Our inability and our reluctance to preserve and share the spaces of the great writers, poets and artists of Nepal gives the impression that we have less than we do
I'll be honest with you. The only reason I heard about Spanish poet Frederico Garcia Lorca is because a favorite song of mine is inspired by him. ¨Take this waltz, ¨ by Canadian singer Leonard Cohen, I learnt, was based on Garcia Lorca´s poetry. Singer-songwriter Cohen spent twelve or thirteen tours writing out the lyrics after reading a Lorca poem. Not only did Cohen write songs inspired by Lorca, he even named his daughter after him.
Who was this Lorca who had inspired a man whose songs draw reverent crowds in college campuses all over North America? Cohen is an iconoclast -- an intellectual who does several things at once, and all with perfect grace. He writes novels and poetry, he composes songs, he plays music, and he sings. After touring the house of Garcia Lorca, I understood why Cohen had been inspired. For like Cohen, his spiritual guru Lorca was also a Renaissance man, an artist who drew, wrote poetry and plays, and who directed theatre. Unlike many contemporary artists, who are often boxed into one genre or another, these folks were free to move from one media to another, understanding that there are no boundaries for expression, and for an artist all forms of creation is fair game. Lorca was also lucky -- unlike many artists who do many things and are condemned for it in times and places that don't understand them, he was born in a place and time in which a poet could also paint, and a painter could also write poetry. Granada in the twenties was a hotbed of creative activity, and it was clear Lorca was at the center of it.
I am determined to see Lorca´s summer home in Granada. But each time I go, it is closed. A group of feral cats congregate outside, being fed by a kind young man who explains to me that the house is only open at specific times, and I should return at the right time. The next morning, I get up early and walk there. And this time, it's open. ¨You're lucky,¨ the museum assistant told me, as I showed up early morning to see the house. ¨This house is meant to be seen in the sunlight.¨ And sure enough the sun poured in through the windows, highlighting the simple living room which still contains the original furniture when the Garcia Lorca family had used it as a summer home. Paintings done by obscure artists hung on the walls. Who is the artist, I ask. Oh, a friend of the family, the assistant dismisses. Not important. And yet, despite his obscure status, the painter had inspired the young Lorca.
I see a small framed painting in a corner which has many signatures. The drawing, explains the museum assistant, has been done by Lorca for a fellow artist, and everybody else has signed it. This sign of a vibrant artistic community which drew upon and thrived upon each others creative work reminded me again that art is a communal activity, and there is no person who is not inspired by his context.
Upstairs, where the parents' bedroom used to be, I see small notebook pages with his magical, playful and spare drawings. Lorca´s special signature, in which he plays with the letters of his own name, interweaving it with weeping suns, vines and faces in profile, is now found everywhere, from fridge magnets to t-shirts. The figures have something about the naive folk art about them, but also the sense of play with profiles which would inspire another Spanish born genius, Picasso.
Lorca´s bedroom is small and simple -- there is a small iron frame bed with a picture of a Mary above it. There is a big desk and above it is the poster of his theatre troupe. On the walls are paintings done by local artists. ¨This is it?¨ I say. The museum assistant smiles at my astonishment. ¨This is it.¨ The window looks out into the green trees which provided the restful atmosphere so important to an artist's creativity. Most of Lorca´s plays were written on this same desk.
After reading Lorca´s poems in the hills of Southern Spain, I saw a spectacular dream in which thousands of birds took flight into the sunset. Either there is something in the olive oil, or else there is some magic element in Southern Spain that heightens the emotions to extremes, making joy and sorrow feel so much more intense than at other places. Perhaps it is the background of Arabic history which spins poetry from stone and water in the background -- the Alhambra, an old palace left by Moorish kings, is an ever present reminder that Spain is a mixed place, where the sounds of Arabic music still resounds in the voices of children humming songs.
Lorca was one of the first people to popularize the then dying art of flamenco by holding a public competition in Granada. A photograph of his sister, dressed up in the flamenco outfit, hangs in one corner. Now, flamenco enjoys a popular revival on international stages and in theatre halls. Lorca also believed that classical theatre should be enjoyed by all people, and to this end he took touring troupes which performed radically modern interpretations of classical plays to rural areas of Spain. This work was funded by the Second Republic's Ministry of Education.
On 19th August, 1936, Garcia Lorca was shot by the Nationalists, who had started a mass campaign to eliminate all supporters of the Republic. Some believe his sexuality -- Lorca was homosexual -- may have played a part in his killing. In a remarkable instance of clairvoyance, Lorca wrote: "Then I realised I had been murdered They looked for me in cafes, cemeteries and churches .... but they did not find me. They never found me? No. They never found me."
Walking through the house of Lorca reminded me again how important it is to preserve the physical spaces where artists lived and worked. In Vermont, I had walked through the home of another poet, Robert Frost. Frost´s ¨Stopping by woods on a snowy evening¨ was a poem I had to memorize as a child. Walking through his small cabin in the woods, seeing the old books on his bookshelves, seeing the kitchen with the sugar cans with the Sixties label still on it, and the markings on the bulky fridge, all of that was a truly incomparable experience. It was clear to all of us impressionable writer types walking through the cabin that the ghost of Robert Frost watched us as we walked through his bedroom. In the kitchen, I lifted up the telephone and said: "hello?" And was that a raspy breath I heard down the telephone? Later that evening, we sat in a circle and one woman produced a recording of Frost's voice. The sixty second recording brought home again how art lives on, even when the artist dies.
It is not that Nepal doesn't have great writers or artists in its history. No, it seems more that our inability, and our reluctance, to preserve and share the spares of the great writers and poets and artists of Nepal is what gives the impression that we have less than we do. Witness, for instance, the solid sculpture of Bhanubhakta Acharya which graces the Chaurastha plaza in Darjeeling. As a Nepali, I felt proud to see the image --unfortunately, I have to cross the border to India to see it.
A while back, I met a woman who shared with me a plan to restore and renovate Balkrishna Sama´s home, and make it financially viable as a cultural institution. It appears to me that we need more of these ventures and initiatives, not just from individuals but also the government which should put aside politics in a major campaign to preserve and revive cultural and artistic endeavours. The French and the Spanish keep all their artwork and their entire heritage, whichever end of the political spectrum the works were inspired by. It's about time we started to do the same.
Posted on: 2009-01-30 19:16:06 (Server Time)