December 2014 Filed in: Books
This post shouldn’t take away from Samanth Subramanian’s excellent book on the life in fishing towns around the Indian coast. It’s one of the most enjoyable travelogues I have read in a while. I only hope to add to it.
His is mostly an andocentric account of men who fish, men who drink toddy, and men who’ve adapted their life to the sociocultural history of fishing towns. His women are either in the kitchen cooking him a meal, or absent, with the exception of one or two, who he amusedly observes from a distance! Perhaps, this is because the life of fisherwomen doesn’t lend itself well to a lighthearted travelogue, or because women drink toddy in the privacy of their community. But, to me, this unwittingly makes plain the invisibility of two million working people of one gender, who collaborate with both those at sea and those on the shore! The nature of their work puts them quite literally front and center, in market squares, selling the product that runs the economy of their sector (Several research studies address the critical role of fisherwomen in India’s national food security); And yet, far from receiving maximum prominence, they are sidelined and tuned out. (Except in cinema, as Silk Smitha in a toddy shop, wearing a sexy Kaliakal saree and doing something fishy! Cinema has led me to take it for granted that behind every drunken man in a shaaaap, there is a woman, or more accurately, in front of every man in a shaaaap, there is a woman's behind!).
In the market too, fisherwomen’s trade is subject to the whims of solipsistic male competitors or big merchants (also male). Hired thugs of market contractors have been denying fisherwomen basic infrastructure (not only tables, chairs and iceboxes, or space to dry or salt their fish, but also drinking water and toilets, and prime market spaces). They are denied transport to carry their fish baskets, and are forced to walk miles with heavy loads of their perishable product over their heads from one market to another. There are very few places that provide special buses for fisherwomen. Even in the market, a lot of their stamina goes into escaping physical violence from men. As a result, they not only incur huge losses from poor quality product, but also suffer from ill-health compounded by poor access to health services.
Fishermen, on the other hand, are able to use vehicles to transport their fish (secured in ice boxes). They have also co-opted mobile phones and GPS technologies into their large list of cultural indulgences that only men ‘should’ have access to. Therefore, only men have immediate information on the prices and availability of fish throughout the country's vast coastline. Women are deprived of participation in economic decision-making. They suffer from severe wage disparities, are excluded from many cooperative societies, and are denied equal access to banking and credit facilities (because of both social and economic reasons). There is also very little support for fisherwomen in government policies, because women are mostly engaged in traditional fishing activities. Existing policies focus on increasing fish production and modernizing the fisheries. This also makes women easy prey to loan sharks. In spite of all this, because there are two million fisherwomen, working alongside four million fishermen, they remain a force to reckon with even without the powers.
The contribution of fisherwomen penetrates every operation of fisheries in both micro and macro levels. They perform every role, from that of auctioneers to retail vendors, and serve both producers and consumers. In many parts of the country, women are almost entirely responsible for fish and ornament trade in all landing and marketing centers, and have to compete only with the big commercial fishing trawlers and middlemen! Within their communities, from the time the fish arrives on land, it is mostly the women who manage the post-harvest operations! They work meticulously for long hours in sorting and grading, curing and drying, segregation and stocking, preserving and peeling activities. They work in processing plants as well. They feed and harvest fish, manage hatcheries, construct and maintain ponds, make nets, collect wild seeds, seaweeds, and shellfish. More recently, they have been very involved in conservation efforts, beach work, and running mobile food businesses for the workers at the landing centers and fish markets. Seasonally, they even play a supportive role in active fishing, both in marine and inland sectors, and especially during multi-day fishing. In addition to this, fisherwomen have almost the exclusive responsibility of running the family, and taking care of financial management.
Over the years, fishermen have struggled to compete with the big industry boats, forcing women to buy fish from outside contractors and also compete with powerful outside forces to make their sales. Only those women who buy fish at the auctions and market them at a profit are able to set a value on their labour. The defeated male-folk in the fishing communities have either diversified into other alternate industries such as tourism, or have forcefully taken over the jobs of women in the market. The worst of them have taken to alcohol and gambling. In Kerala, alcohol abuse is linked to 44% of road accidents and 80% of divorces. The fishing community is not immune to alcoholism. If anything, they are often both the cause and the victims of this problem.
Fisherwomen have found innovative ways to stay in the fishery business in spite of the tough market. For instance, in Kerala, women work all night to deliver late-night catch fresh off the boat to homes. In off-seasons when high-value fish are nonexistent, fisherwomen sell sardines and cheap fish to the poultry industry. They run petty shops or sell toddy (not always illicitly) to supplement family income from fishing. The fisherwomen of Vizag have broken into the IT market in big cities, and are selling their employees dry fish snacks for an impressive profit! With the help of non-profits, women are also slowly overcoming their dependence on traditional fisheries and are learning to adopt to new technologies. ICT training is also helping them take calculated risks during their active fishing trips. There are some women entrepreneurs who are also in the forefront of fishing technologies, with some technologies patented and licensed to them! This is a huge step, given the sociocultural barriers that have thus far prevented them from embracing technology. In another example of daring, after the tsunami in Tamil Nadu, several fisherwomen took swimming lessons (offered by Austrian trainers), and willingly wore swim suits with dupatta-coverings (shawls) in defiance of cultural taboos. Fisherwomen also work in conservation planning, such as the preservation of the lives and habitats of Olive Ridley turtles.
However, some of their ventures put their lives at risk. In Bhitarkanika National Park, fisherwomen work as illegal crab catchers, even though they face arrests by forest guards, or attacks by crocodiles because of improper safety practices. Government regulators often enforce conservation regulation without consideration for those who depend entirely on these lands for their living. What is needed in fact are more realistic regulations grounded in both science and social responsibility.
In the tourism industry, many young women are forced into sex work in “Ayurvedic massage parlors”, and even provide escort services to elderly tourists! The industry has also taken away much needed physical space from fisherwomen to perform their post-harvest jobs (and less importantly, for them to mingle privately within their community). Women play a huge role in continuing the cultural customs and norms of their fishing communities. Subramanian shares some detail on how fishing communities have done well to assimilate Christianity into their native Hindu traditions. Even in Hindu fishing communities, while some have retained centuries-old customs, others have created amalgams of two of more traditions. For instance, the Telugu-speaking Hindu community in Odisha have assimilated traditions of both States into their lives and customs. Hinduism too has several mythological stories about fishing communities, like that of Parvati living among the fisherfolk when Shiva banishes her from heaven, or the more famous Satyavati story. For some strange reason, this mythology seems more popular among the non-fishing communities! But, they are worth reflecting on, because the prominent figures in all these stories are women!
(The information for this post is entirely from the first few links on google from searching Fisherwomen + India + “Research Study”, or Fisherwomen + “National Food Security”, or some such.)
January 2014 Filed in: Books | Films | TV | Art | Online | Adaptations | Graphic Storytelling | Google Doodles
Yesterday was the 201st anniversary of the first publication of Pride and Prejudice. But, it was in fact written seventeen years before that, when Austen was still as young and spirited as Lizzy. She carried the book with her for almost half her life before it was finally published, only to depart from it and this world four years later. In those seventeen years, she had experienced a tumultuous life that was to change who she was and the course of women all over the world for all time.
When she first wrote the book, her father made an earnest attempt to get it published, but it was to wait almost two decades before Thomas Egerton agreed to publish it, albeit at Austen’s expense. Curiously, Egerton specialized in military and political works until then, and Austen was his first woman novelist. He was also her publisher for Sense and Sensibility the year before. Pride and Prejudice was so popular that it caught on with readers more quickly through word-of-mouth than printed advertisements, so that a second edition had to be printed within nine months of the first edition coming out.
At that time, Austen was only the second generation of novelists. Novels were a fairly new form of literature. They became popular in the mid-18th century when the middle class expanded and there was a demand for secular stories driven not by plot, but by individuals. But, most of them were written by men, and were adventures centered around larger-than-life male heroes, usually in imaginary worlds, with women playing insignificant roles in the stories. Even the novels centered around women were mostly written by men and portrayed them as being modest and meek, or as they were meant to be.
Austen is the first novelist in history to capture ordinary life in the Regency era. Her men and women are rooted in reality and come in every imaginable shade of character. Compared to her contemporaries, her characters are bold and the flirtations are akin to today's Fifty Shades of Grey, only more eloquent and reflective. I particularly savor the way she captures the constant negotiation of expectations and impressions between the commodities in the story, that is the “eligible” suitors in the marriage market. The conversations between them are crisp, witty and full of revealing gestures, but more importantly, intentional, and often driven through indirect discourses. Every conversation, every situation and every letter arrives with perfect timing, so that the plot always moves along in unexpected ways. We are forever reappraising characters and becoming aware of their lack of self-knowledge. Everyone’s foibles and the ironies of their life are so relatable, that you delight in them because it is your reality.
Her stories are primarily human and about the pursuit of truths through sharp satire. She once criticized her niece’s draft novel for portraying people in Dawlish gossiping about news from Lyme, which is forty miles away and would not be talked of there. That is the level of adherence to fact and societal accuracy that she aimed for, which makes her works important historic documents. Her truths are loaded and “universally acknowledged”, and lay all the societal pretensions bare and impossible to dispute!
What also sets her apart from novelists during her times is her lack of indulgence in prose about material things and the description of settings. Her characters are almost entirely preoccupied with calibrating delicate feelings and abstract nouns to take notice of their surroundings. They display a desire to understand what shapes people’s consciousness and their character and morality, and what dictates their choices.
And because abstract nouns have a universal appeal, she inspires every kind of intellectual dialogue imaginable. Her work speaks different things to different generations and cultures and academicians (and also to Orangutans). It has been superimposed by so many adaptations that the mind attempts to summon Darcy only to be distracted by Olivier or Firth or whoever else made a bold attempt at being devastatingly handsome (or devastatingly conceited)!
Along with the adaptations, there are a whole sleuth of biographies attempting to construct a woman who seems almost mythical in her attainments. When Austen first wrote Pride and Prejudice, she was a teenager with little formal education, gaining knowledge solely from the books in her father’s library. And it is that tiny world that inspired novels of such depth and beauty, and insight into society and politics. One wonders how!
When I read Pride and Prejudice today, I imagine my grandmom as a young teenager, holding the very same book, and swooning over Darcy, or admiring a clever Elizabeth Bennet and marveling at the society in England back in the days! Along with the book, my grandmom also passed on hope and that love comes from pursuing the truth of one’s own character. I find Austen's persistence as a writer, through all the hardships particularly inspiring! I also take comfort in reading the bits of her unfinished novels in Juvenilia because nothing about what I do is every complete. I can’t tell if I love her more or her works, because they, and their journey are also a reflection of who she is. Jane Austen and her Pride and Prejudice came close to being in extremis, only to become immortal.
Last year, BBC recreated the Netherfield Ball for the 200th anniversary celebration of Pride and Prejudice, and shared a 90-minute Making-of documentary called Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball! Also, there is an online exhibition called What Jane Saw, which attempted to reconstruct the art exhibit of Sir Joshua Reynolds paintings at the British Institution in Pall Mall that Austen talks about in Pride and Prejudice. Back then, the exhibition was the first commemorative museum show dedicated to a single artist, and something of a pop-culture phenomenon! Austen was something of a Rob Fleming of High Fidelity of her times, and kept up with all the who’s-whos and so-and-sos of her time and wove them into her stories. Many of the character descriptions in Pride and Prejudice were said to have been inspired by Sir Joshua Reynolds portraits. Finally, here is Pride and Prejudice cartoon by Jen Sorenson.
This short is in Hindi, and does not have subtitles, but it is fairly self-explanatory, and has a predictable, albeit reductive ending!
On the issue of self-defense, I have, and I suspect a lot of women have wondered if self-defense works against sexual assault. This 77-page report published by the National Institute of Justice suggests that struggling against the attacker is better than cooperating. Some self-defense techniques have shown to have reduced the risk of rape by more than 80% compared to nonresistance; and to have also helped victims with mental health recovery post-rape.
This is great advice. But, many can't seem to see beyond women having to find the resolve within themselves to deal with sexual harassment. Moreover, sexual harassment needs to be seen as, and dealt with, in the same law enforcement capacity by the police, as any other cognizable crime, like murder or kidnapping. If a locality has a lot of murder incidents, the solution is not to simply teach all the residents karate, but to increase surveillance, patrols, and other enforcement efforts, in addition to educating people on protecting themselves and respecting human dignity!
I always watch these short films on sexual harassment in the hope that they will show us something other than women standing up for themselves or arguing that they are not to blame for sexual harassment; not because these are not important, but because, by now, we should have moved beyond this to a more reasonable world!
October 2013 Filed in: Videos
Sooraya Qadir (Dust) is a young Afghan Sunni Muslim mutant, with Sandman-like powers. She is rescued by Wolverine from slave trade in Afghanistan and brought to X-Mansion for training. She wears the abaya and niqab and observes traditional Islamic etiquette.
She is one of those characters who plays a prominent role in New X-Men and Young X-Men series, and saves the day on many occasions; still, most of the conversation around her is about her defending her faith-based choices; One wonders what motivated the writers to think up her character, in an otherwise secular series.
Most of this dialogue on Islamic faith is intriguing for several reasons.
One, because it happens over many volumes. Sooraya to everyone is a muslim before she is a mutant.
Two, because Sooraya's character was conceived right after 9/11.
Three, because it adds a new slant to the dialogue about hypersexualization and objectification of female superheroes in comics.
Four, because, in a world where mutants are misunderstood and discriminated against by humans, this discussion seems a bit captious.
Five, because the comic offers little information about the beliefs of other X-Men characters' from other parts of the world that are specific to their culture!
Six, because her faith is presented as being restrictive, and she as being one-dimensional, which is lamentable given she is an adolescent girl!
Seven, because it makes me deliberate on the similarity between the typical superhero costume and the hijab in relation to both secret and self-evident identities, visual iconography and symbolism!
The good news is, we now have another perky hijabi superhero in a more real, non-X-men universe! Qahera, an Eqyptian superwoman, fights misogyny, Islamophobia, and offers her own brand of droll humor.
I recommend using the Index to navigate through the Qahera comic strips and FAQs!
It takes twenty-odd pages of vivid graphics for a delightful acquaintance with MS Subbulakshmi. Within those 20-odd pages, you can also get a glimpse of other musical vidwans, freedom-fighters, artists, writers and spiritual leaders who shaped her life's work for nearly ninety years;
For me, this graphic biography kindled some derivative nostalgia. MS Subbulakshmi sang a few times in my ancestral house in Madras, including at my maternal grandparents' wedding. To me, this fact alone makes her next to kin. My grandmother's admiration for MS however was more heartfelt. To her, MS's sweet countenance and cultured disposition, her humility when she interacted with people, her devotion as she lost herself to music, and her complete and unreserved generosity inspired reverence.
During the time of my grandmother's wedding, MS was already married to Thiagaraja Sadasivam, a film producer, writer and freedom fighter. She also gained national recognition after her performance as Narada (a male role) in the film Savitri, and Meera in the film Meera. Her acting career was driven by her desire to raise money for Kalki, a Nationalist tamil magazine founded by her husband and Kalki Krishnamurthy.
To me, Kalki was the wellspring of some of the greatest historical novels ever written: Sivakamiyin Sapatham, Partiban Kanavu and Ponniyin Selvan. The first two epics were set in 7th century AD when the Pallava dynasty (Later Pallavas) was ruling southern India; and the last one was set in the 10th century AD when the Chola Dynasty (Later Cholas) was ruling southern India. All three epics are about romance and statecraft and beautifully bind real historical events with fiction.
Kalki was an offshoot of some pro-Tamil movements that MS too was a part of. For instance, the Tamil Isai Movement started by Annamalai Chettiar in the 1940s popularized tamil songs in concerts; most of the songs being sung in concerts up until then were in telugu and sanskrit. No other movement did better to delineate the link between language and class than the Tamil Isai movement; especially because classical music (Karnataka sangita), which was championed by the Music Academy, was brahmin-dominated; whereas Tamil Isai Sangam was advanced mostly by non-Brahmins (even though Kalki himself was a brahmin). Kalki fuelled the movement with its persuasive rhetoric, and MS lent her support to this cause by singing at the Tamil Isai Sangam, and later encouraging The Music Academy to acquiesce to tamil songs.
For all that, MS wasn't a tamil purist. She sang in many Indian languages (Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati, Malayalam, Bengali, Urdu, and Sanskrit) and was particular about pronunciation and spent time understanding the meaning (bhava) behind the songs. She was also the first to introduce Carnatic music to the West and performed in many Indian languages and Indian classical music genres all over the world!
She was a devoted wife, who unquestioningly accepted her husband's reformist convictions and his desire to challenge social taboos; this also meant donating all her life's earnings to charitable causes. In the end, they were badly off; even though they were lauded for their altruism.
The illustrated biography recounts all this and more. The anecdotes in the book, of MS's childhood are particularly appealing because they call to mind a way of life that saw its end in our time. No nadaswaram player will walk up to our doorstep and play us a tune, and no unknown hermit will volunteer to teach us the Grantha script everyday; even though we may have experienced remnants of this culture up until a few years ago.
But, what the book doesn't touch upon is how MS challenged the social fabric of Carnatic music. She was part of the female trinity of Carnatic music; the other two being DK Pattamal and ML Vasantakumari, who were the first vocal singers to perform in concerts. Until then, women (mostly devadasis) were allowed to perform only in private gatherings. Women were also restricted to singing Padams and Javallis; whereas, Pallavi singing that allows for improvisation was restricted to men. The trinity were the first to have male accompanists perform with them; In fact, women were rarely even allowed to attend concerts. The carnatic music world was brahminical and male-dominated, and MS, whose mother was a devadasi, fought a war against many ideals. In the end, she even led the unjavarti processions during Thyagaraja Aradana celebrations, which were restricted to men; and eventually only allowed in a separate women-only aradhana conducted at the rear-end of the samadhi. So, when you read the book, also think of her and an incidental feminist who ushered in a new era in India, where music is free for all and knows no boundaries! :)
This biography is part of the Pictures of Melody series by Lakshmi Devnath, and features many other great Carnatic musicians! I recommend all of them.
April 2013 Filed in: Books
The backcover says the book is "A vibrant collection of stories from one of Karnataka's finest storytellers". It is as vibrant as a drowned whelp. It is intentionally and incontrovertibly a dismal book of stories about women who find themselves in unhappy situations. They portray real societal hypocrisies, but are ultimately unedifying, except for the main story Gulabi Talkies, which evokes nostalgia for a simpler time when cinema was a relative novelty that brought with it new hopes and aspirations [until even in that, the author decided to take a flourishing soul that she nurtured till the very end and squeeze it dry].
To be fair to the author, I found myself feeling equally anesthetized, or at least wanting to be, when I read a translated collection of short stories by some telugu authors a few years ago. The formula seems to be to cull some classic women's issues and spin stories around them without trying too hard, except to maybe think up some trenchant statements and choice phrases that will make you squeamish; To put it in their language: in the end, you are left wondering what in the world got you so wet, shaken and quickly dissatisfied.
I still recommend the book because it's a celebrated author, and her works are highly praised by most, so the underlying messages must just be lying deep beyond my reach. In my defense, in every story the author insinuates that the character is thinking deep thoughts, without ever revealing what those thoughts are. This aggravates me as much as when someone says "It's complicated" when they want to brush you off! Two because, if you haven't read this brand of short stories, then you haven't not understood one set of women's writings in the Indian context! Three because, the book did a good job of culling all possible sad stories, so you can use them as reference to reflect on similar experiences in your life. Your truth is sure to be stranger than this fiction. Four because, misery loves company. Tell me you suffered this book too. Five because, I am about to watch the movie adaptation of Gulabi Talkies. Make of that what you will.
Can you tell from reading a book by an anonymous writer if its author is male or female? I would like to believe I can't, only because when I read a book, I want to leave behind our world and get into the world in the book. The author needs to be indeterminate and invisible (except in the case of meta-books, where authors consciously choose to draw attention to themselves). But some suggest that short stories may be a more suitable form for women. I find that sexist. The only way I could read this book was to test my theory out, and imagine that it was written by a man, and see if the conversations would still read the same way. I am happy to report that they left me feeling equally squeamish.
The animated video above served as a backdrop for Karen Eve Johnson's play about Maria Sibylla Merian, a European naturalist explorer; and Jacoba, an African slave woman in Suriname who is deeply knowledgeable about the jungles of Suriname. I haven't seen the play, and I am not even sure if it is touring, but the trailer was enough to make me giddy, and imagine all of Merian's splendid botanical artwork in movement.
Today is Maria Sibylla Merian's 366th birthday. A few days ago, I wrote about how her art and scientific explorations changed how we see nature. Getty Museum has a beautiful write-up and slideshow (with commentary) about her work. I particularly like the slideshow because it reveals how a young teenager scooped out insects from the mud and observed where they lived and what they ate, and then rendered the whole choreography of the ecosystem for us to see in delightful and visually articulate paintings.
I mentioned in my earlier post that women at that time were banned from pursuing both art and science; science primarily because it required working with nude bodies and corpses. Moreover, working with insects and reptiles was associated with witchcraft; and Merian was born during the peak years of witch-hunt. But, what I also forgot to mention as far as art is concerned is that, this was also a time when women were categorically forbidden from working with oil paints in most of Europe; and were restricted to watercolors because it was a limiting medium, and was associated with amateur work. Materials were therefore gendered, and informed what each work of art meant from a sociological point of view. Employing it the way Merian did however requires a great deal of mastery and virtuosity, which was clearly a skill she honed over many years of training from a real master, her stepfather, Jacob Marrel, a still-life painter of the Dutch Golden Age, who encouraged her to pursue art.
Merian broke every rule in the book when she became an artist and a scientist, and travelled to places farther than most men did to study insects (e.g.: she learnt from tribal people in the jungles of Surniname, which you can imagine wasn't a place many were familiar with at that time); that too as a middle-aged divorced woman with two young daughters. In spite of having no access to formal scientific education, she brought into being the whole study of ecology that deals with the relationship of organisms with their physical surroundings, and transformed science (especially botany and zoology, and within it entymology, or the study of insects) into the structured and disciplined field that it is today. She elevated the quality of botanical illustrations with her exquisite and accurate three-dimensional artwork. What is also fascinating is that she literally changed the language of science, from Latin to vernacular. The result of this was that she wasn't taken seriously by the scientific community during her time, but unconsciously transformed the rules of scientific writing for later decades.
She inspired her own daughters to become artists, publishers and business women. Although, she was married, she later separated from her husband and lived with her mother and two daughters in Amsterdam, and the four women together set up a botanical art studio, and published several artworks, and art and science books. Unfortunately, many of the books that survive today are heavily-used or damaged copies. What is particularly interesting is that she also took interest in teaching silk embroiderers and cabinet makers how to limn flowers. She exquisitely combined fine art with natural philosophy, scientific knowledge, and commerce.
I have lost count of all her exploits; but what is clear is that she had rule-breaking down to a fine art.
I recommend Kim's Todd's Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis, about Merian's life, and her contribution to the metamorphosis of science, an age, and a society.
Here's another slideshow describing her artwork as part of the Royal Collection's Amazing Rare Things. The exhibition was collaborated with David Attenborough, and showcases artists who portrayed natural work with scientific interest from the 15th century onwards. There is also a beautiful coffee table book by the same name.
Here's a youtube video of a lot of her works set to Georg Friedrich Händel's music.
Until the Renaissance period, women were not allowed to become artists. Art was mainly a man's vocation, and in fact, women were rarely even depicted in paintings, except as angels or other divine beings.
But even as some women attempted to enter the 'artist's guild' in the Renaissance period, artists were considered respectable only if they were knowledgeable in mathematics and biological sciences; and women were unequivocally barred from learning biological sciences, since the study of the human body required working with male and female nudes and corpses; and also women working with animals and insects was associated with witchcraft! It was a frustrating conundrum, which did not fully get resolved until the late 19th century, although with each passing decade women inched closer and closer to full freedom: first painting still life, then depicting historical and mythological scenes, and then portraits of draped people (In fact nudes had to wait till the 20th century)! The few women who did manage to somehow break this quandary during the Renaissance were nuns or aristocrats who were able to gyp the system. Needless to say, few were willing to risk everything for a trifling chance to paint!
In the 1600s, a time when both art and science were inaccessible to women, a woman called Maria Sibylla Merian broke every rule in the book, and became one of the greatest naturalists and scientific illustrators of all time! At the age of 13, she was the first person to observe the metamorphosis of a silkworm, and her account of this pre-dated published accounts of scientists by almost ten years! She was also one of the first few scientists to venture out of Europe and travel all the way to Surinam to study insects with the help of local tribes; and eventually became the first to study the relationship between insects and their host plants, which changed the way naturalists thought about symbiosis; and gave birth to a whole branch in science called ecology. Until Merian drew insects with the food they ate, scientists believed that they reproduced spontaneously from decaying matter. Moreover, her aesthetic detail and the stunning quality of her work raised the standards of scientific illustration.
It convinces me that some of the best work in science happens outside of the strict parameters of scientific approaches. Maria's work was uninhibited by predetermined rules, and was a result of her own unfettered curiosity and imagination. You see this holds true even in other areas of Science. Several amateur astronomers even today contribute significantly to the study of astronomy, not only with finding comets and novae, and data collection, but also with inventing telescopic devices.
But even after two hundred fifty years since Maria Sibylla Merian, not all was fine for women artists and scientists. In the Victorian era (late 1800s), Edith Holden showed every sign of greatness, but her vast knowledge of her local ecology went completely unnoticed for fifty years after her death, and seventy years after she wrote The Country Diary and The Nature Notes!
Unlike Maria Sybilla Merian, Edith Holden did not actively pursue her calling as a naturalist. Her nature notes were never meant to be published, although she meant to share them with her students at the girls' school. She was just a young artist, exploring her countryside on her bicycle and discovering nature, admiring everyone and everything around her, while being blissfully unaware of how exceptional she herself was. Her diaries have simple hand-written notes about her everyday adventures arranged by date; interspersed with her exquisite water color paintings of flowers, plants, animals, birds and insects. When you read her notes, you see yourself in Birmingham in the Edwardian Period. 107 years ago, exact to this date, on a dull and grey day, she was watching birds building nests, carrying a bicycle half a mile down a thorny lane to picnic on a fence, and wondering why the white Periwinkles have five petals and the blue ones have four.
And while she painted the scenes of the West Midlands countryside, and illustrated various species in graphic detail, she had to make do with finding recognition only as an artist for children's books, as women were not otherwise taken seriously as proper artists or scientists. But to Merian and Holden, the pursuit of nature was mostly one of curiosity! They were just full of wonder and amazement; You saw that in Merian because all her writings were presented not as facts, but in sentences that began with "perhaps" "maybe" "probably". And Holden shares not only her thoughts about nature, but poetry written by all her favorite poets. Evidently, there was a poem for every season and every 'naturey' thing; and everyone knew their physical surroundings like the palm of their hand! I am not surprised how much nature was a subject of contemplation by poets, but just the level of knowledge about the wonders that seasonal changes brought to their places! But, I mostly wonder what would have become of Maria Sibylla Merian and Edith Holden if they were in fact allowed full freedom to pursue their dreams.
There are very few male and female naturalist writers in this era who are also painters; This was a lot more common up until the Victorian era. Just as women are beginning to experience professional equality today, we are beginning to lose this ability!
Ever since I pre-ordered Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death, I have been on a Bernd Heinrich-athon. I feel this uncharacteristic need to finish reading his books that have been staring me in the face for months, before reaching for his new one. The plan is to check each book off from this list after reading it, and share some overarching thoughts when I am done with the whole pile.
A Year in the Maine Woods ✔
The Trees in my Forest ✔
Summer World: A Season of Bounty ✔
Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival
Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds
The Geese of Beaver Bog
Speaking of Bernd Heinrich-athon, the man also writes a lot about running: humans running, animals running; Apparently, a lot of living species are built for distance. I am steering clear of those for now, and will save them for when I reach for a treadmill!
In the mean time, I present Anna Raff's bird paintings that have been keeping me entertained for over three years. After 576 paintings, I am amazed that she hasn't run out of ideas, and her birds continue to make me laugh.
February 2013 Filed in: Books
I am participating in the South Asian Women Writers Challenge, and will be reading six South Indian books by women writers and reviewing at least three by the end of this year.
Feel free to recommend both fiction and non-fiction books from the red area; and also participate in the challenge.
Jennifer Lawrence is a terrific actress. I buy into her character in every movie. I see her and I see everything through her, and every other character is worth considering if she thinks so. And the only time I don't see things through Jennifer Lawrence's point of view is when she is not in the scene.
In every movie I have seen of hers, she stands out as an empathetic person who puts loved ones ahead of herself; she is courageous and goes after what she wants even in the face of death or humiliation; she is talented (both physically and mentally) in spite of her upbringing; she is clear-sighted, perceptive and helps us make sense of things even in circumstances bereft of reason. I often find myself empathising with people who seem slightly off only because she likes them or gets them! And everyone behaves differently around her than when they are alone or with other people, suddenly becoming all the more interesting-- take the scene in Silver Linings where she dances with Chris Tucker, or the scene where almost all the characters meet in Bradley Cooper's house after the big fight at the stadium, and there's a parlay between Bradley Cooper's dad and his friend. You see their quirks come to light in the most endearing way as soon as she barges into the scene!
Her thriving spirit always prevails, and I come out of the movie ready to take on the world! But, the world always looks rather cruel.
In order to get the full grasp of her movie, you have to put it in perspective of all her other movies. It's like appreciating how the same glass changes forms as it goes through different phase transitions and comes face to face with various elements and changes in temperature. It's the type of quality that makes an actor an auteur.
When she stands straight, the world looks off-kilter.
A year and a half ago, I came upon a blog of a young girl suffering from terminal cancer. I had been following her since. She had an ambitious bucket list on her blog that included aspirations not just for herself but for 'everyone'; and was conquering it so steadily and indefatigably that I almost forgot that she had cancer except when she mentioned her treatment in passing. Even then, it was near impossible to see the suffering.
Middle of last year, she had completed all the doable-things on her bucket list (with the exception of the things she meant for us to do), but continued to be more active than ever.
On January 1st of this year, I had read her usual spirited post, and she seemed to have many things to look forward to. Today, I went back to find that she had a change of heart and chose to achieve them in the next world.
Here's a link to her charity: Alice's Escapes
(The picture of Alice above will take you to her tribute video on Vimeo)
February 2013 Filed in: Films
"I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one's mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one's leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form." - Dumbledore
Few movies make me feel uneasy. While I was watching Zero Dark Thirty, the torture and the raid had me in cold sweat; and when I came out of the theatre the narrative of Zero Dark Thirty left me in an ethical quagmire; each of these alone would have been enough to discomfit me, but what got me most is that I associated this movie with reality, and it didn't feel right.
Kathryn Bigelow is good at appealing to our raw and visceral impulses. She has a way of making the fictional aspect of the film virtually transparent. It is as if the story always existed (as presented); her film testifies to its existence (as presented), and it is now available for us to see and understand (as presented).
Her fiction feigns the innocent arrogance of objective fact that is indifferent to our response. And in this way, she entices us to view the film; and because of the way it is presented, where in you are a third-person with access to unfolding 'real' events, you see your reactions and judgments as being either instinctive or filtered through your prejudices. In this way, the film exercises authority over reality, and becomes a reality in its own right, whose verity need not be questioned.
It becomes less important if Bigelow drew the vase or the space around the vase, because only a part of it need be filled for us to complete the whole. But, we can never unsee the whole, and see only the part, and therein lies the dilemma of reality based fiction, and fiction based reality. Whose truth or fiction is the vase, whose is the space around it, and who is to take credit for the whole?
“You may break, you may shatter the vase, if you will, but the scent of the roses will hang round it still.” - Thomas More
January 2013 Filed in: TV
I enjoy watching Reality TV. No other medium of art or literature allows us this pleasure, except cinema; unless you have access to several detailed diaries or biographies of related-people interacting with each other in some elaborate set-ups.
One does not assume that Reality is real. As soon as real life is presented in fragments, everything is transformed, and even the recognizable world becomes limited and constructed. So we explore a transmuted reality from a non-rational unconscious, guided mostly by our deep inward feelings; while our conscious, rational mind works to overcome the reproduction and find reality in it!
There is always a plot developing; even when it all looks like a mindless tussle; the diegesis is well-thought out and progresses at an agreeable pace. My visceral reactions to the unfolding reality, or fiction, or whatever that thing is, is fascinating, simply because it evokes a real reaction!
It is when you see reality being presented as a screenplay, that you recognize photogenie, the ineffable element of cinema, which is like color is to a painting, and notes are to music. It reveals the soul of everything it reproduces. Even a tree is transformed from nature to art when it is viewed through the screen.
It reminds me of what Louis Delluc said way back in 1919 about cinema being modern art, because it uses technology to stylise real life.
But, there is a certain sincerity to the genre of Reality, not because it is non-mediated in nature, but because it is seeking to evoke feelings in us that are real and automatic! We are Reality. I also like that it makes us think that our everyday can be presented in a structured format, where each of us is a character in a story moving forward in a one-dimensional plot. It plays to our vicarious pleasure of wanting structure!
Lisa Vanderpump, one of the one-dimensional housewives in the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, is featured in another new Reality TV series called Vanderpump Rules, where we can see her play a successful restaurateur, her other dimension.