This week’s blog post is a little late, but it’s extra long to make up for it! Enjoy another foray into photography, fantasy, and academia with Siddharth Pandey.
In heartfelt gratitude of a blessed friendship-in-making
“Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”
One of the joys of studying at Homerton College is its library; one of the joys of the library is its conducive facilitation of engaging activities. Walking through the clacketing entrance and turning left immediately after passing the small issuing-kiosk recess, two square tables greet the visitor, topped with a couple of newspapers and arts and crafts equipment, inclusive of colouring books. In a recent blog entry, a fellow doctoral researcher and friend Tyler Shores shed some light on the reasons for the contemporary proliferation of these books, and they attract my attention as well. Like the jigsaw puzzles, chess-sets and do-it-yourself origami collections placed in their vicinity, these intensely detailed black-and-white patterns rejuvenate the mind with the care and concern required to fill those contours with the variously-hued pens and pencils, a decent supply of which is always ensured by our fabulous librarians. The books belong to all library users; hence, people known and unbeknownst to each other participate in the filling according to their whims and fancies. During my studies, I have intermittently leafed through them, sometimes to add a stroke or two, but mostly to marvel at their state of incompletion, a forming, foaming presence that instantly recalls the unfinished designs of the 19th century polymath William Morris.
Incompletion fingerprints in-betweenness, an idea with which I concluded my last post on lines in fantasy, and in-betweenness fingerprints making. Making is always being. Just over a month ago, when I found myself traversing the splendid precincts of Durham Cathedral up in the north, I witnessed an astonishing instantiation of such flux. On entering the souvenir shop’s medieval catacomb-like premises, a massive miniature version of the cathedral welcomed me, stretching the length of more than ten feet and rising just a little less. A man stood behind, intently exercising his hands over the surface, gaze fixed in concentration. Reading the displayed information and a brief chat with three people manning a nearby reception table revealed that the model was being made of Lego bricks in an endeavor to raise money for the cathedral’s makeover. The making relied directly on the cathedral visitors who were encouraged to buy at least one Lego brick, each priced for a Pound. The money collected would go into fund-raising for the actual cathedral. This innovative idea was the brainchild of the cathedral employees and had taken off three years back, due to culminate this year. It was estimated that the model would require 300,000 Lego bricks in total, generating an equal number of Pounds.
I was rendered speechless. Brilliant! That’s the only word I could utter to myself and to everyone around. What a remarkable way of fund-raising! What a remarkable way of bringing people and architecture together through making! What further compounded my amazement was the sophistication and accountability of the entire venture: the buying was not a simple random act of shelling out a few coins, but actually entailed a choice-based culling of a few Lego bricks and a simultaneous appraisal of the precise location where they would fit, by the means of detailed drawn-plans relayed by an old man. I was then to deliver the bricks to the person behind the model, who would patiently insert them in the exact location I had been made aware of, a location in whose selection I too had had a say. Just before leaving this conjuring scenario, I was enthusiastically congratulated by the receptionists: “you chose the 200th brick today!” and was awarded a tiny blue sticker proclaiming “I built Durham Cathedral… in LEGO bricks”. I appreciated the ellipsis.
Wandering my way back, I paused to soak the subtle patterning of light on flagstone paths through the magnificent cloister windows, and suddenly remembered that it was in these very passages that some scenes of the first Harry Potter film had also been shot years ago. The stealing in of this memory subsequently converged with the reason for my own presence in Durham: I had arrived a day back to discuss the making of my upcoming photography exhibition at The Oriental Museum with its staff members. In that escalating moment of moving out, then, three makings seamlessly flocked together, all anchored in transition: the model’s, the film’s, and the display’s.
For around two years now, I have been working on fantasy’s “aesthetic of making”, a concept that in its theorization has involved a continuous – if sometimes exasperating – flitting in between intuitiveness and counter-intuition. As a genre, fantasy specializes in making and in the intentional referencing of that making, reinforcing and reifying the importance of creation. Makers abound in fantasy as do made objects and memories of doing. In general, literature is about the making of worlds, a fact so obvious that it hardly merits day-to-day critical attention. Fantasy specifically takes that making to another level by routinely citing the adjective “made” and its synonyms “crafted” and “created”, and the sense of distinctiveness they evoke: Elf-made gems and Dwarf-made swords, wandmakers’ wands and alchemists’ stones- the list is endless. Wonder is innate to our allusions to making – “how must have they made this” we wonder on beholding a stunning object, a striking building – and fantasy knows this. This recurrence of fantastical madeness had intrigued me for long, for it both exposed and hid an essence at one and the same time: magic, after all, was magical because part of it could never be known, even as it was via its expression that the otherworldly presented itself to characters and readers. This wondering about fantasy’s madeness pushed me to think about the making of making and conceptualize a phrase that would address creation’s interiorization: the aesthetic of making, with the term “aesthetic” tapping into its Greek etymological base “aesthetikos” implying sentience and perception, i.e., a state of the self’s making, a ceaseless becoming. If the aesthetic appeal of general literature resided in its coming alive in the act of reading – a point elaborated by several contemporary theorists of literary embodiment – then the aesthetic appeal of fantasy lay not only in its reading but in the conscious intertwining of that reading with the represented acts of making, detailed or brief: making things, making tools, making magic.
Studying at Cambridge and travelling across the UK brought me closer to gaining a better understanding of such an intensification of making, a knowledge that never stops overwhelming me. I am drawn towards representations of maker-figures in the same way as iron is drawn to magnet. And Britain excels in perpetuating such magnetism. I am thrilled at regarding a painting of an architect or a cartographer or a king or a commissioner on a stained-glass window of a cathedral, almost always holding or working on a model of the same building they have designed and are a part of, a common occurrence in many medieval and neo-medieval buildings. This is a self-reflexivity that triggers an imaginative bourgeoning of endless repetition, recalling also Durham Cathedral’s Lego version within the same cathedral. The sense of self multiplies and echoes in a deepening of space as you imagine a comet-like trailing of miniature versions stretching and ceaselessly carving that depth. One becomes many. Not only painting but sculpture too records such reflexivity with some fine examples protuberating from the magnificent facades of colleges in Cambridge itself. My preliminary forays into art history introduced me to the theoretical concept that explains such reflexivity, mis-en-abyme, French for “placed into abyss”, a notion that also bears some resonances for the inventive continuities of mythopoeic fantasies.
I am hooked by the sense of absorption such representations communicate, a delightful illustration of which can be found in the modern day mural running along the Northern line platform of Charing Cross Station, London. This thickly lined, black and white artwork depicts scenes from the making of the original Charing Cross, a lavishly decorated 13th century stone monument commissioned by King Edward I in the memory of his wife Eleanor of Castile. The history of a place gets recorded and popularized through a remembrance of its making, a remembrance that also memorializes its etymology. I am intrigued, too, by the deeply thoughtful gazes of such sculpted and painted craftsmen and the inwardness they encourage us to dwell on. Such inwardness is always aglow, simmering in a blanket of black, like Milton’s – and then, Pullman’s – dark materials. A thrilling current coursed through me when I recently entered a room in Edinburgh Castle that visually and sculpturally narrated the making of the royal jewels. While the preceding display spaces detailing the history of monarchy were brightly lit, this segment made in the image of a forge-cum-workshop, was dark. Mostly dark, that is. For the countenances of the smiths were drenched in the softness of the fires, flames and limited window-light they worked in. Such splaying of partial visibility is intrinsic to our imagining and understanding of any making, for the verbal, visual and abstract rhetoric of the unfinished profoundly impregnates the processual.
As my doctoral project tugs me to consciously make sense of making, I come to realize that I have been drawn to this amorphous concept from much before my PhD. As an MPhil student at Cambridge, one of our assignments required us to undertake the analysis of a picturebook in theoretical and empirical terms, the latter to be carried out in the presence of its intended audience, children. I remember getting frustrated over making my choice and then exulting in the joy of discovering the most complex picturebook I have come across, Chloe and the Lion (2012) by Mac Barnett and Adam Rex. This is a work which focuses entirely on its own making, with the represented versions of the author and the illustrator interrupting the narrative throughout, evoking, rather curiously, the interjecting omniscient voices of several Victorian novelists, from George Eliot to William Makepeace Thackeray. Reading this exceptionally playful work turned even more eventful with the seven-year old girls’ interpretations, that regarded almost everything represented as represented except for the portrayals of the author and the illustrator, cleverly named Mac and Adam. For the children, Mac and Adam remained the most “real” over everything else, as they were, after all, the maker figures already introduced and authorized by the cover-jacket. Sifting through the viewpoints of children revealed impressive dimensions of the porousness characterizing reality and representation, leading to an assignment that remains close to my heart.
Then for the MPhil dissertation, I wrote a thesis interrogating the genesis of the upcoming genre of Indian English fantasy for young adults. Once again, I found myself getting attracted to the sites that made literature, and my project unfurled along a tripartite framework: place, object and character, markers that made most if not all literary domains. Obsession with creation continued, and it would be in the first year of my PhD that I would encounter the fields of narratology and possible worlds theory to philosophically and discursively account for the existence of literary universes, areas that proved challenging and even unpalatable in the beginning, but eventually, rewarding and indispensable to think about and through making.
The slow conscious and subconscious distillation of ideas informing making inevitably started affecting my appreciation of other forms of art beyond fantasy literature, and I began to get acutely drawn into the behind-the-scene stories of artworks while keeping the seemingly finished product at the centre of my attention. Visiting the National Gallery of Scotland in my already alluded-to Edinburgh visit, I was halted in my meanderings by an exquisite da Vinci, The Madonna of the Yarnwinder (1501). The oil painting, hanging against a textured green backdrop and ensconced in a roughly-hewn wooden frame, depicts an unusually large Christ Child gazing intently at a cross-shaped yarnwinder, “as if already aware of his future crucifixion” in the words of the information panel. Further description revealed how “Leonardo was notorious for failing to complete works” and that the “landscape behind was probably added by another artist”, a powerful illustration of making’s in-betweenness. But what equally seized my attention was the object in focus, the yarnwinder, a symbol of spinning and creativity, brilliantly overturned in its connotation by the master artist to foreshadow death. But not exactly: Christ, after all, resurrected. In-betweenness trumped once again.
Such tools of making, from the yarnwinder to the loom to the needle, populate classical texts and fairy-tales before making an entry in the modern genre of fantasy, where they flourish in old and experimental avatars, both. They foreground the maker-figure, for it is s/he who wields them into precise use. Or does he? Can he, completely? When the inimitable Scottish poet Norman MacCaig describes the making of a portrait bust in his poem “Portrait bust”, he subtly debates the power dynamic of such a wielding:
That’s forcing it, he thought,
and kneaded the clay back into
its shapeless shape.
Then he patted it, pulled it,
pared shavings off it.
His eyes ping-ponged
between it and his model.
No good… No good… It’s not him.
And he pummelled the clay again
into its original shapelessness
and thought to himself
That’s better. That’s more like it
And started spoiling it again.
Who wins? The bust doesn’t get made, the dissatisfaction endures (“better”, “more like it”, not unerringly it), and despite the assurance of improving through repetition, “spoiling” smears the ending. Does not the clay exercise a superior power than the maker?
Fantasy excels in such somersaulting. Making becomes the property of the object’s performance, literally. From being a product of the craftsperson’s imagination, magical objects continually become makers by and in themselves, so that original intentionality frequently gets overwhelmed and even undermined by the material being of objects. This is affected not only through the art of description often swerving towards the ekphrastic (common to both classical and general literature objects: think, for instance, of the Shield of Achilles, that legendarily fuses ekphrasis with making), but also by effecting an aliveness that physically courses through the magical object, not just its history or phenomenological reading. In what must be one of the most gorgeous descriptions of any fantasy object, we receive a remarkable illustration of such literalness. As Will handles the eponymous knife of Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife, he notices that
It was an ordinary looking dagger with a double sided blade of metal about eight inches long, a short crosspiece of the same metal, and a handle of rosewood. As he looked at it more closely, he saw that the rosewood was inlaid with golden wires, forming a design he didn’t recognize till he turned the knife around and saw an angel, with wings folded. On the other side was a different angel, with wings upraised. The wires stood out a little from the surface, giving a firm grip, and as he picked it up he felt that it was light in his hand and strong and beautifully balanced, and that the blade was not dull after all. In fact, a swirl of cloudy colors seemed to live just under the surface of the metal: bruise purples, sea blues, earth browns, cloud grays, the deep green under heavy-foliaged trees, the clustering shades of a mount of a tomb, as evening falls over to a deserted graveyard.
Crafted by the philosophers of Cittàgazze, the Subtle Knife or Asahættr the “God-Destroyer” is a uniquely complex object, for it facilitates the making of different universes and thereby the making of the narrative, but by the same token also ushers in the villainous soul-destroying Spectres every time a cut is made. The gradual gradation of colours seduces the reader and Will, but also disturbs by the end: “clustering shades of a mount of a tomb, as evening falls over to a deserted graveyard.” Darkness gets encoded in an otherwise luscious description and is realized in action: Will must lose two fingers to become the knife-bearer, and evil must unleash with the wounding of a world.
If in-betweeness characterizes made objects, then uncertainty amplifies their fluidity. Throughout The Subtle Knife and later The Amber Spyglass, the ambiguity of the object’s status is reinforced by expressions of apprehension: Will should maintain a distance from the knife, and yet can’t. Such loss of exactitude is essential for fantasy’s metaphysical makings. As Colin Whisterfield perceptively remarks in Alan Garner’s Boneland – the mesmerizing conclusion to The Weirdstone of Brisangamen trilogy – “I am for uncertainty. As soon as you feel you know, you are done for”. “Think about it”, he expands, “if a painter ever achieves perfection, what else would be there to do? The same goes for a sculptor, or a composer; a potter; or anyone”. Garner is a master of words like none other, precise and unique in a rawness that is rich and rare. And yet, he too recourses to imprecision whilst thinking of the fantastical, the unknown. Pullman himself alludes to Keats’ negative capability while elucidating the dazzlingly overpowering idea of Dust. And like Dust, Rowling’s magic too is imprecise, always beginning with a small “m” in keeping with the force’s unpredictability and endless proliferations, until it gets appropriated by a tyrannical dictatorship to signify only one thing: “Magic is Might.” This of course, does not stop magic from being unpredictable, Mrs. Cattermole finding it hard to prove her truthful claim that the wand selected her, not the other way round.
Uncertainty and unpredictability have fundamentally shaped my thought and imagination for long. Two axioms introduced in childhood- “change is nature” and “the only thing predictable (or certain) is unpredictability (or uncertainty)”- have stayed with me. But it has been increasingly difficult to argue for their relevance in developing a literary and ethical position. That is, until now, when I find them circulating through all major fantastical realms in clear if complex instantiations of poststructuralist ethos. Despite the significance of much ideological critiques which I continue to use and gain inspiration from, I have been getting wary of the almost deterministic mechanism through which positions- literary or otherwise- express themselves in collective, public domains, almost always through a vicious opposition to viewpoints embracing change, flux and difference. And vicious such oppositions certainly are, for critics love resorting to vilification without necessarily pausing for an alternate and/or patient thought. This is ironical, given critique’s ostensible avowedness to argue on behalf of differences. It is a matter that demands another elaborate article, but for now, I will quote a passage from our well-loved landscape writer Robert Macfarlane’s recent masterpiece Landmarks, which dwells on the importance of uncertainty:
In her fine Hope in the Dark (2007), the Californian writer and activist Rebecca Solnit reflects on the nature of social and political changes, and especially those brought about by literature and art. Hope, she suggests, is a function of uncertainty, of not-knowing. It is a longing for change, experienced in necessary ignorance of when that change will come or what form it will take. “A lot of activists expect that for every action there is an equal and opposite and punctual reaction,” Solit writes, in a passage to which I find myself often returning:
and regard the lack of one as failure. But history is shaped by the groundswell and common dreams that single acts and moments only represent. It’s a landscape more complicated than commensurate cause and effect… Politics is a surface in which transformation comes about as much because of pervasive changes in the depths of the collective imagination as because of visible acts, although both are necessary. And though, huge causes sometimes have little effect, tiny ones occasionally have huge consequences…
Writers need to understand that action is seldom direct. You write your books, you scatter your seeds. Rats might eat them, or they might just rot. In California, some seeds lie dormant for decades because they germinate only after fire.
Macfarlane cites Solnit to comment on the vagaries of reality; I reference her via him to emphasize fantasy’s capricious fecundity. How different are the two?
While it is only now that I have consciously started to make sense of making, I can trace the beginnings of this fascination to my childhood in the Himalayas of North India. When one thinks of mountains, solidity and imposing dominance strike as their most obvious features, ideas that undermine the sense of movement essential to making. But it is precisely this sense, and that too in everlasting abundance, that crafted my reception and relationship with the world’s most humbling landscape. Mountains were the source of all movement, from spinning rivers to whispering winds, both creative and destructive. Talk to any visitor from the plains, and s/he will revel in the affordances of different views and sunsets, views experienced by moving through the twists and turns of the highlands. Same with the clouds, same with the mists, same with the birdsong of the Himalayan blue whistling thrush. Everything is alive in the mountains, charged with a creative clarity.
But hill life was never only a matter of recognizing nature. My love for architecture owed equally to the highlands, shaping first around the pre-colonial wooden, mud and slate houses of the Kullu valley, and later, around the captivating mélanges of aesthetics of Shimla, the erstwhile “Little England” of India. Nature made me obsessive about architecture, and architecture crystallized my love for nature. From the very beginning, architecture was the most important form of art for me, owing to its unmatched presence all over the planet in comparison to the other arts. This was well before I discovered the thought of William Morris, whom I would come to regard as the greatest mind of Britain, a discovery much required for the validation of ideas that had been brewing for long. “Architecture would lead us to all the arts, as it did with earlier men: but if we despise it and take no note of how we are housed, the other arts will have a hard time of it indeed”, said Morris. There is an ethics of the built that is intrinsic to this master craftsman’s creative vision. Robert Macfarlane’s subtle remark that “while writing about [natural] landscape often begins in the aesthetic, it must always tend to the ethical” holds true even for built terrains. And, like Macfarlane’s insistence on discovering a precise vocabulary registering the mystical realities of the natural world, architecture too works with a particular language that poetically sings itself-out: fretworks and fenestrations, ashlars and arcades, belfries and brackets, gazeboes and gables.
But it was immensely difficult to articulate and discuss such perspectives in a country whose post-independent urban planning easily ranked as one of the worst. Architecture was as important for me as the socio-theoretical constructs of gender, caste, class and education, the last being another passion that inevitably got refracted through architecture. Retrospectively, I often claim to have enjoyed my education at school, university, and home, in spite of its many drawbacks. But that enjoyment never quelled the anger experienced at the abysmally cavalier approach to spreading awareness of architecture and related fields of archaeology and conservation, an anger that burns me still. That architecture, by and large, could only be studied as an engineering science in my home country depressed me, not because of some inexplicable prejudice towards engineering – a word I would eventually come to love as a constructive verb – but because of the extremely clinical and consequently detrimental approach towards the discipline, in whose rigid hierarchy of sub-disciplines (civil, mechanical, electrical etc.) architecture popularly sat the lowest. A doubling of discrimination, as it were. It would only be much later that I would come across the writings of one of the foremost architectural-engineers Ove Arup, who would debate the very basis of engineering as a science and argue for its “close relationship to art or craft”. This was unimaginable in most Indian educational, political and social contexts – it still is – a lack of imagination that has rightly if sadly translated into shockingly faulty urban and ruralscapes across the country, whose repercussions we suffer every day. It was but natural then that in my literary research, I became interested in the intersections of geography, space and nature with the written word, that would trigger some new ways of thinking for a nascent post-graduate Delhi University student. In due course, I would learn that spatial studies did not necessarily include an interrogation of architectural aesthetics in literature, a field that has only recently begun with the works of scholars such as David Spurr and Nicole Reynolds. But at least it was a start.
As my enthrallment with the built endures, I recognize its claim to in-betweenness too. My first publication on Shimla debated the nuances of such in-betweenness that marked the architectural evolution of my Himalayan hometown from a colonial to a postcolonial space. In more direct terms, I am always engrossed by the element of movement in old buildings, an aspect discussed in my previous post. Recent trips to the spellbinding Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire and the densely awe-inspiring Sir John Soane Museum in London literally opened up walls as windows, stretching and squeezing space in a drama of sheer delight and magnificence. Fantasy yarns out such shiftiness to dazzling heights and depths: like the octagonal lantern at Ely, the octagonal Chamber of Seasons in William Horwood’s Hyddenworld quartet also opens up its paneled shutters. With such weightage given to movement, it is unsurprising albeit still enchanting that the title track of the immensely popular television series A Game of Thrones rehearses this very emergence and unfurling of buildings, sliding, gyrating and pulsating to the throb of cogs, axles and ball-bearings.
But the most astonishing illumination of such a becoming was observed during a visit to another museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum at London, to discuss yet another making of an upcoming exhibition. Entering its spacious Filament Pavilion, I spotted an oddly shining canopied contraption curling around an edge of the central shallow pool by the name of Elytra, a “responsive” shelter being built by a robot on site by capturing the visitors’ presence through sensors. Here, then, walked a shelter as people ambled around its location, a location always in making.
Elytra’s uniqueness lay in its inspiration: flying beetles’ forewing shells are called “elytra”. The unique mechanism brought together an architectural space fashioned after an animal and growing like a baby. Organism and artefact were no longer distinguishable, instantiating the anthropologists Elizabeth Hallam and Tim Ingold’s key argument in their edited anthology Making and Growing, that the two are not different and not opposites as generally thought. Such linking of the natural and the built is crucial, even inherent, to numerous aspects of life, particularly language. Macfarlane, on the brink of completing his Lake District night-walk narrated in his now classic The Wild Places, passes an ice dune “which was as smooth and glassy as the sill of a weir”. A little later, he looks along the “cornice line” of a group of rocks steepening the ground, and proceeds “in a supple curve along the ridge edge and over the moon trench, as if it had been engineered.” That our most admired nature writer frequently describes the pinnacle of wild beauty in constructed terms – like other wise wordsmiths – makes us question our flawed division of nature from culture, and vice versa. Nan Shepherd, the phenomenal female nature writer who so profoundly influences Macfarlane, also laces her appreciation of mountains in a vocabulary of craft: “By Lochnagar, the whole façade [of cliffs] is clear, sculpted in block and cleft and cornice, with which the light makes play.” And fantasy takes cognizance of this amalgamation too. In his romances and non-fictional writings for instance, William Morris often describes the beauty of a woman’s hair as finely fleshed-out gold wires, and the elegance of a hand as an outcome of crafting objects. A rigidly ideological analysis can easily misunderstand such an explanation as “objectification”, but nothing could be further from truth. Craft makes one human, just as humans make craftworks. Near the end of The Amber Spyglass, when Lyra wanders around the mulefa village, she is entranced by its wooden, clay and thatch architecture, which has “nothing crude about them; each door and window-frame and lintel was covered in subtle patterns, but patterns that weren’t carved in the wood: it was as if they’d persuaded the wood to grow in that shape naturally”. As material gets worked through making, beauty seamlessly falls into place.
Making is connecting. Tim Ingold evocatively segues making with weaving, and analogizes the pair with architecture as well. “As building is to dwelling, so making is to weaving.” “To highlight the second term in each pair” elaborates the erudite anthropologist, is “to prioritize process over product, and to define the activity by the attentiveness of environmental engagement rather than the transitivity of means and ends.” Weaving in itself is connecting: body to things, things to body, things to things and bodies to bodies. While such connections are what primarily guide my doctoral project, I do however additionally reflect on the violence of making intrinsic to several fantasies, which instead of connecting essentially disconnect and disembody. There, making morphs into its opposite: unmaking. The sufferer’s experience of violence, however, can also lead to making, ushering connections. The lauded Japanese craftsman Kenji Ekuan, who passed away last year and is celebrated for gifting the world the shapes, textures and looks of so many recognizable objects – from the soy sauce bottle to Yamaha motorcycles – felt “a great nostalgia for human culture” in the aftermath of the devastation of World War II. “I needed something to touch, to look at”, Ekuan said, transforming that desire into a decision “to be a maker of things”. Even as he was inspired by Buddhist ideals, they did not undercut his resolution to make things. “The path of Buddha is the path to salvation for all living things” the philosophical designer noted, but realized that for him “the path to salvation lay in objects… [for] objects have their own world. Making an object means imbuing it with its own spirit.” [My thanks to Sarah for bringing The New York Times obituary to my attention, from where these lines have been sourced].
Making is communicating. Whether directly or subtly, making speaks. It is remarkable that for Pullman’s mulefa, the inventive term for metaphor is “make-like”. Just before the concluding paragraph of The Railway Children, when Nesbit’s voice gently takes over the scene of the once-torn family coming together, she hovers over the entrance through the gaze of the returning father, a contemplation that distils into a consideration of craft: “[The swallows] are getting ready to fly away from cold winds and keen frost to the land where it is always summer. They are the same swallows that the children built the little clay nests for.” And so, the swallows get emphasized and empathized with via the modality of making, setting off one of the most poignant endings in Western children’s literature.
In the middle of Bajirao Mastani, a contemporary Bollywood film by my favourite director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, a scene of weaving punctuates the narrative. I have long credited Bhansali – an equally extolled and disliked filmmaker – as the most important inspiration for my camera work. In the scene, the first wife of the eighteenth-century Indian Hindu warrior Bajirao and her mother-in-law sew saffron flags for Bajirao’s army processions. The warrior has recently brought home a second bride, a Muslim woman named Mastani, leaving the first Hindu wife Kashibai and his mother distraught with sadness, bitterness and anger. As the female pair weave on, they sarcastically joke about the changing times and the need of changing colours. “We might have to shift from saffron to green now” quips Kashibai, green being the colour of Islam. The film brims with references to colours and eventually resolves into a plea for secularism, but the scene of weaving between the two women manages to communicate the exact opposite: jealousy, frustration, hostility, all through the pricking of the needle in a cloth slipping away from their grasp. It is an intensely personal and a penetratingly political moment of gendered interiority. All of Bhansali’s cinema is rife with references to women weaving and making, shaping a thinking, working female subject. The most recent illustration, in particular, recalls the English painter Edward Leighton’s delicate masterpiece Stitching the Standard (1911), where the woman-weaver’s bent gaze and folded and outstretched hands draw attention to a corporeal-mental inwardness. I do not know if Bhansali had this painting in mind, but I won’t be surprised if he did, considering his penchant for both Eastern and Western visual arts liberally witnessed in his previous films.
Making is inspiring. I am gripped by the sheer thought of Keats deriving inspiration from a Grecian urn to chisel one of the most quoted lines in English literature, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”; I am captivated by the stimulus provided by the sculpted Chinamen in lapis lazuli to filter Yeats’ long view of history; and I am stirred by Bruegel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” provoking Auden to critique humanity’s indifference to suffering. Likewise, I am fascinated by craftsmanship’s impetus for critics to become novelists, novelists cultural biographers, readers musicians, makers novelists, and academics makers. The eminent Victorian literature critic John Plotz, whose work on portable property has been personally influential in sowing the seeds of thinking about crafted material culture within the context of 19th century travel writing, recently published a children’s fantasy novel inspired from the work of Morris, Time and Tapestry: A William Morris Adventure. Renowned novelist AS Byatt in her latest handsomely packaged small book Peacock and Vine reflects on the lives and passions of two craftsmen, William Morris and Mariano Fortuny, in an interconnected fashion. Says Byatt on the first page itself: “… as I grow older I become more and more interested in craftsmen- glass-blowers, potters, makers of textiles.” Thinking about the Spanish-Venetian Fortuny makes Byatt reflect upon Morris and vice versa, just as thinking about the crafted colonial architecture of Shimla triggers a meditation on the built aesthetics of Britain, the opposite holding true as well. Much of the hauntingly sublime music of my most cherished composer Ludovico Einaudi derives its concern and harmony from the sonorous words of Thoreau’s Walden. And the novels of Anuradha Roy, easily one of the finest voices in contemporary Indian English writing, echo with a lyricism associable with the making of pottery, in which Roy is deeply steeped (I am compelled to make such a connection having been an ardent reader of Roy, despite my discomfort with purely biographical approaches to literature). Finally, I feel fortunate to be working with Maria Nikolajeva – the academic craftsperson and my doctoral supervisor – who is well-known for her intricately riveting doll-houses.
Inspiring is making. Inspiring erases stasis and churns movement. My life in the Himalayas, as my family’s, has been inspirational to the point of its manifestation in some form of creation: the photography of my father, the miniature drawings and camera-work of my younger brother, and the many craft-based talents of my mother. There is an image from my childhood dating back to more than a decade that radiates with my mother adding final strokes to a painting treasured by all in the family and beyond. It is a photo that has been close to my heart for its comfortingly contrasting display of hues: Ma to the left, draped in maroon and cream, holding a palette bursting with a gallimaufry of used and fresh paints; the canvas to the right, its blue-and-tawny sunlit subject perpetuated by the actual sun; green plants framing and forming the backdrop.
But for all my skill as a photographer, the image isn’t my capture but my younger brother’s. While its luster, cheer and deep sense of engagement still overwhelmingly guides my love for the composition, I now cognize that my admiration also has much to do with capturing a moment of making (Was this always the case?). In fact, three moments of making: The hill-crowned tarn is based on a photograph by my father captured high up in the Himalayas during one of his many treks. But his vision, and then Ma’s, reach me through the creative eye of my brother: a meeting of three makings, quite like Durham’s.
Like my family, I did not receive any formal training before stepping into the shoes of a photographer, and again like my family, passion and practice kept me going. As I now prepare for the fifth and sixth displays of my works at The Oriental Museum and at the Victoria and Albert respectively, I cannot help but feel amused at the memory of hosting my first display three years back at Cambridge on not more than two notice boards, with a limited budget of less than £30. Even more overwhelming, however, is the surprise of having one of my photographs translate into a painting without my knowledge by a dear friend, who, as she later exclaimed, “saw the photo on Facebook and knew I had to paint it!” She too is a self-trained artist. I never regarded her chosen image as a special capture, but now, having witnessed its metamorphosis, I do. Later, my friend revealed that while initially she had wanted to gift the painting to me, she experienced a change of heart nearing its completion. How would I like- she cautiously suggested – to collectively gift the painting from her side and a framed copy of my photograph from mine to a common, respected acquaintance? To which I could answer in the affirmative only after the initial elation at the suggestion had somewhat settled in. What could be a greater joy than to gift two versions of a memory in different forms to an associate that linked us both? Crafted togetherness at its best.
In my first post for this blog written around two years back, I had shed light on the mixing and merging of reality and fantasy occasioned by my photography. I keep returning to this conclusion rooted in the blurring of the two as I develop my position – always in the making – regarding my chosen area of research. This perhaps also prevents me from taking up fantasy writing myself, and I end up disappointing people who expectantly enquire, “so when will you write your fantasy novel?” I wonder if a similar query is put to literary scholars researching drama or realistic fiction (I am aware that poetry researchers more than often take up to poetry themselves). Living in the Himalayas and then in Cambridge has by itself been such a magical experience that it is hard to come up with my own fictional universes. If anything, my experiences till now have only sharpened my appreciation for the ordinary and the everyday; therefore, I regard non-fiction as creative as fiction, the former being an area in which I like to practice, whether through academic/ semi-academic articles or write-ups such as this. I held this view much before I encountered Macfarlane’s gorgeous non-fictional prose itself inspired from Shepherd’s tactile style, which, as he perceptively points out, achieves an “irradiation of the common into the universal.” The same holds true for his own work too, and its is this irradiation that I would like to achieve one day.
But apart from writing and photographing, there is another manner through which I have begun exploring my relationship to my two homelands as well as the reality-fantasy complex. The highlands of India like the highlands of Britain have long entranced me with their inherent musicality, an abundance of harmonies entrenched in the sinews of their soils. Despite the lack of formal training, I feel privileged to have started making sense of what it means for the mountains to breathe and pathways to turn, horizons to brew and mists to sift. The more I listen to the folk music of the Himalayas and the Celtic tunes of the Scottish Highlands and Ireland, the more I become convinced that there is something common to both of them. It is the exploration of that something that has compelled me to create music- simple, uncomplicated and unworded- but music nevertheless. The valences of making have only led to further makings, and only now do I begin to fully appreciate the implications of what Ingold concluding argument expressed in the final chapter of his magnificent The Perception of Environment: “To focus on song and craftsmanship rather than language and technology is to foreground the poetic and performative aspects of speech and tool-use that have been marginalized by rationalism.” Music, as the supreme wizard Dumbledore rightly states, is a “magic beyond all we do here [Hogwarts].” It is the dawning of this understanding, this desire of going beyond by delving into, that makes me even more grateful to be researching at a wonderful Centre and a magical university-town, Hogwarts, that continue to craft their wisdom through kindness, clarity and commitment.
The following is a recent performance of “Flow” with my flautist friend Patrick at Homerton, inspired by the music of European and Himalayan highlands.