Three elephants

During my first visit to India (in early 1994), my in-laws encouraged my wife and me to take sightseeing trips organised by the Karnataka State Road Transport Company (‘KSRTC’). These coach trips, each of which lasted more than 12 hours, involved seeing many interesting sights. During one of them, we visited the old (12th century and earlier) temples at Belur.

After viewing the temples, we left the area in which they are enclosed, and stood waiting to board our bus. A small boy approached us. In his hand there were three small carved stone elephants, which he offered to sell us. They were quite attractive, but not something that we wanted. He began by saying:

“Two hundred rupees only.”

We declined his offer.

“One hundred and fifty rupees,” he said.

We were not tempted.

“One hundred?”

We said “No, thanks.”


Again, we refused. He brought the elephants closer to us.


“We really don’t want them,” we explained to him. Then, he said:

“Have them for nothing.”

We told him that we did not want them, and he wandered off,

Today, almost thirty years later, I still wonder what would have happened next if we had accepted the three elephants without paying anything to the little chap. Even though we did not buy or accept the three cute little carvings, I can still see them in my mind’s eye.

Imported from India

IN THE FIFTEENTH century, the Portuguese made an important set of discoveries, which were kept a closely guarded secret. These discoveries brought great wealth to Portugal. The Portuguese navigators found routes from Portugal to India via the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape of Good Hope. By using these, they were able to transport spices and other valuable commodities from Asia to Portugal directly. Prior to the discovery of this sea route, goods from India and further east arrived in Europe via Egypt and the former Ottoman Empire. This overland route undoubtedly added various middle-man costs to the goods.

Once the Portuguese began sailing in the Indian Ocean, they successfully created a monopoly over trading in this area. However, after a period of uninterrupted use of the Indian Ocean, competition arrived in the form of mainly Dutch and British trading vessels.

Mother of pearl bowls from India

Madeira was one of the places that the early Portuguese ships called in at during their voyages. This was brought home to me during a visit to Funchal’s superb Museum of Sacred Art. In two of its rooms we saw religious artefacts – sculptures and two mother of pearl bowls – which were labelled as having come from India. There were others that came from ‘Portuguese Asia’. One item, a beautiful inlaid tortoise shell box, came from Japan.

Unlike the religious sculptures we have seen in old Portuguese churches in Goa, which often feature Indian looking faces, those in the museum had European facial appearances. An exception is a 16th century carved panel depicting St Francis Xavier asleep on the Island of Shangchuang. He is accompanied by two saints – one Indian and the other Chinese.

Seeing these beautiful old sculptures and other objects, which were made in Asia and then brought to Madeira, helped make the history of Portugal’s former pioneering navigational achievements a little more vivid for me.

A cup of coffee

Somnath in the state of Gujarat is one of India’s important Hindu pilgrimage centres. People flock to the small town to worship in the Somnath Temple (also known as the ‘Deo Patan’). The shrine has been in existence for many centuries, but was demolished by Muslim invaders several times, and re-built after each episode of demolition. The structure you see today was built in the early 1950s.

To enter the temple, one must first divest yourself of cameras, all electronic equipment, and anything made with leather – remember, the cow is sacred in Hinduism.  Although we did not  enter the crowded temple because of the long queue, we watched the line of people waiting to file through the security check point at the temple compound’s entrance. Everyone passed beneath a metal detector archway and then was frisked. But it was a frisking with a difference. The security personnel passed their hands up and down, and close to, each of the visitor’s bodies, but made no physical contact with them.

Far less visited than the temple, but close by, there is a fascinating museum containing artefacts – sculptures and architectural fragments. All of the exhibits had once been parts of the former Somnath temples, which had been destroyed. Part of the collection was housed in a building constructed with domes and pillars from the former reincarnations of the temples.

After viewing the museum on a warm morning in March 2018, we were ready for a drink. It was around 11 am and coffee would have been very welcome, but our chances of finding some were pretty slim because we had discovered that in most of Gujarat coffee is not available in outlets providing drinks. As we walked away from the museum, a lady, hearing us speaking in English, stopped us in the street, and told us that she was a retired English language teacher. Kindly, she asked us to come into her home, next to which we were standing, to join her for a cup of – we could hardly believe what we were hearing – coffee. Full of anticipation, we followed her indoors. She told us that she drank coffee all day.

Our hostess fetched two disposable cups and filled them with hot milk to which she added a few grains of instant coffee powder. She seated us in her living room, and soon we were joined by another lady, who had just dropped in to say hello. At about the same time, some (wild) street dogs also entered the house, and our hostess fed them biscuits. Now, I do not want to sound ungrateful, but it was difficult even to imagine that we were drinking coffee because the amount of coffee she had added to the milk was so little; it was homeopathic in quantity.

After a while, our hostess’s husband arrived home and joined us. A retired businessman, he had become a pandit (a Hindu priest). As with many people we had already met during our travels in Gujarat, the first question he asked my wife was about her caste. In her case, that is not a simple question to answer because her parents, who did not believe in the importance of the caste system, were not from the same caste. In fact, my wife had no idea of what her caste until she was 27 years old.  One of them was a Kayasth. The pandit explained that the Kayasths are offshoots of the Brahmins, but essentially Brahmin. Later, we spoke about the temples in Somnath. He was attached not to the main pilgrimage temple but to a smaller one nearby, which is much older than the Deo Patan. We had visited it earlier in the day. Kindly, he walked with us through the town, helping us find our way back to our hotel, which was near the town’s quite grand railway station.

Although the coffee was not quite what we were hoping for, the disposable cups deserve more of a mention. The Pandit’s wife cannot have been sure of our castes and was too polite to ask. Well, I do not qualify for any reference to the caste system, and she had not asked my wife about her caste, or even whether she is a Hindu. As a devout Hindu, and a pandit’s wife, she could not risk her coffee cups becoming polluted by being touched by people who were not, or might not be, of the right caste. For safety’s sake, she used the cups that could be disposed of after we had touched them.

Hitler and India

MANY BOOKSHOPS IN INDIA carry copies of “Mein Kampf” by Adolf Hitler, translated into English. They are not hidden away from view but are displayed openly in bookshelves alongside books with less offensive texts. The books are not old and tatty, but look brand new, suggesting that they are bought frequently and replaced by new stock. Why this book should still be on the shelves in India so many decades after it was first published has always puzzled me. So, when I saw a book “Hitler and India” published by the historian Vaibhav Purandare in 2021, I bought a copy. I was hoping that it might help me understand the prevalence of “Mein Kampf” in Indian bookshops.

Purandare’s book is an easy read and quite interesting. He points out very effectively that Hitler had no love for Indians. Furthermore, he felt that it was right that the British rather the Indians than should rule India. And, in his opinion, he felt that should Germany ever rule India, the Indians would yearn for the return of what he considered to be the too lenient rule of the British. Hitler wrote that: “I would, despite everything, still far rather see India under English than under some other rule …”
Hitler had no desire to support those fighting for the freedom of India because, believe it or not, prior to WW2 he hoped that Britain and Germany might eventually become allies. Purandare also details how Indians in Germany suffered at the hands of the Nazis and their security forces. It was only after Britain and the Soviet Union became enemies of Germany that he entertained the idea of providing limited assistance to those, like Subhas Chandra Bose, who were fighting to free India from the British. Even then, the assistance he authorised was very limited. He did ship Bose out to Japan, but there was little more to his help than that. It must be remembered that he only did this as a way to undermine the British war effort; he did not believe that an independent India was either feasible or desirable. All of the foregoing is well described in the book.

Unfortunately, what the book failed to do is what I hoped when I purchased it. It brings me no closer to understanding why “Mein Kampf” appears in so many Indian bookshops, and evidently sells. What Purandare does make clear is that Hitler’s book contains passages that are insulting to Indians. As for its appeal to Indian bookshop browsers, his book has not brought me any closer to understanding it.

Seeing red

KAYAL ISLAND RETREAT is a small but tastefully luxurious resort on the east coast of the long thin Kakkathuruthu Island in the backwaters of Kerala, not far from Alappuzha (Aleppey). Our friend who owns it kindly invited us to spend an afternoon there. During our stay, we were taken on a delightful boat trip through the peaceful backwaters. After that, the resort’s manager took us on a walk through the rustic tropical landscape from the resort to a nearby small ferry landing stage on the west side of the island. We followed him along a winding path that threaded its way between small farmhouses, fields, fish farms, ponds, and reed beds.

All along the path, there was a series of concrete poles that supported overhead electricity cables. On almost every one of them there was red painted graffiti. Many of the poles were daubed with the initials ‘DYFI’, which stands for the Democratic Youth Federation of India, which is affiliated to the CPI(M) – the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Some of the poles also had depictions of the head of Che Guevara and five-pointed red stars or the letters ‘CPIM’. One pole had “Viva Revolution” on it and some others were daubed with the names of countries including Mexico and Bolivia, At least one house along our route had a large hammer and sickle painted on it. With the exception of the country names, all of these manifestations of Communism are frequently seen all over Kerala, which at times has been ruled by Communist governments,

At the small ferry landing stage, we watched some women and schoolchildren disembark from the ferry – a small boat with an outboard motor. Overlooking the simple wooden landing stage, there was a tall metal pole with the letters BJP on top of it. The pole supported two cords from which BJP flags were fluttering. The BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) is currently in power as the Government of India.

I asked our guide how the locals tended to vote on the island. He believed that most of them would probably vote for the Communists or some other Socialist party, rather than for the BJP. As we walked along in the hot humid air, I mused upon the contrast between the wealthy holiday makers enjoying our friend’s resort and the relatively poor inhabitants of the island with leftward leaning political sympathies, who might, in theory at least, be antipathetic to the idea of outsiders relaxing luxuriously on their island whilst they slog away in the hot sun. Whatever they believe, the resort does bring additional employment opportunities close to their homes – almost all the staff are from the island.

Art behind bars

FORT KOCHI IN Kerala was occupied by three European powers: first by Portugal, then ny the Netherlands, and then by the British until 1947. It was whilst the British were in charge that a small jail was built on what is now Tower Road. Next to a police station and close to a string of roadside seafood restaurants, there is a gate that leads into the Jail of the Freedom Struggle. This prison was built by the British at a forgotten date during the 19th century. One clue to its age is that some of its roof tiles can be dated to 1865. The prison has a row of eight cells, each equipped with a 6 foot long concrete bed.

The prison, which might have been used as a transit establishment for prisoners waiting to be taken elsewhere, is said to have held leading freedom fighters such as Mohammed Rehman, Accamma Cherian, and K J Herschel,  A K Gopalan, E M S Namboothiripad, and Abdurahiman Sahib. However, this is not known for certain. The prison, which had become disused and dilapidated, was restored in 2009, and opened as a museum.

In February 2023, we visited Fort Kochi to explore the 2022 Kochi Muziris Art Biennale. Unconnected with this major event, we visited an exhibition of artworks being displayed in the former prison. This included both paintings and sculptures. What made it an usual exhibition is that the exhibits are all contained within the cells behind strong iron doors with vertical bars. The doors that once prevented the prisoners from leaving the cells now prevent visitors from entering them.

Women in art

SURVEYING THE REPRESENTATION of women by artists in a single exhibition might seem a daunting task, if not impossible. Yet, this is what the exhibition “Visible/Invisible” achieves successfully. Curated by Kamini Sawhney, Arnika Ahldag, Vaishnavi Kambadur, Riya Kumar and Arshad Hakim, this magnificent display of artworks can be viewed at the recently opened (in late February 2023) Museum of Art and Photography (‘MAP’) on Kasturba Road in Bangalore (Bengaluru). The exhibition, which is displayed in most of the rooms on one floor of MAP confines itself to works created by artists, both male and female, from the Indian subcontinent and its diaspora. However, this did not hinder the curators’ aim of demonstrating the female in art over the centuries.

The 130 artworks on show range in date of creation from the 10th century AD to the present. MAP’s website reveals that the various artworks:
“… are interwoven into four key sections based on narratives and counter-narratives: Goddess and Mortal, Sexuality and Desire, Power and Violence, and Struggle and Resistance. Each section presents how women’s lives have been portrayed, the spaces that they occupy and challenges that women have faced in the Indian subcontinent. The themes and ideas explored in Visible/Invisible hopes to encourage audience awareness of the history and role of women and gender in art.”
And the exhibition successfully raised my awareness of the multiple ways in which the lives of women have been portrayed by artists of both genders over the centuries,

The artworks include sculptures, paintings, photographs, film posters, textiles (some created by female artists and others woven in traditional patterns by craftswomen), and prints. Almost every exhibit was a joy to behold, What was particularly interesting were examples of artworks created within the last few decades that demonstrate how Indian women artist have taken control of the way they portray women and their lives, What the viewer sees is how women see themselves, which is a contrast to what has happened in earlier times when women have often been shown in the way that men have viewed their lives.

All in all, this exciting exhibition is compelling both visually and conceptually. The curators have expressed their ideas beautifully and powerfully, but not without considerable subtlety.

A new museum on the map

THE MUSEUM OF ART and Photography (‘MAP’) in central Bangalore has just opened (on the 18th of February 2023. Facing the Visvesvaraya Industrial & Technical Museum, MAP is housed in a brand new building with some attractive architectural features.

The edifice has five floors and a basement, which is home to an exorbitantly priced café, run by a company called Smoor. The ground floor has a reception area, a book/gift shop, and some gallery space. This is currently housing an exhibition of fascinating, attractive sculptures by LN Tallur. Some of the works of this contemporary artist allude to Hindu deities in a novel way.

The first floor is home to an auditorium, named after one of MAP’s major donors, Mazumdar-Shaw. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, a childhood friend of my wife, is a keen collector of art and has helped finance many other cultural establishments. On the same floor, there is a digital exhibition, whose subject matter can be chosen by the visitor.

The second floor is dedicated to offices and a library. Above this on the third floor, there is currently an exhibition of photographs by Jyoti Bhatt (born 1934), who began his artistic career in the famous art school in Baroda (Vadodara) in Gujarat. His works range from excellent straightforward documentary photography to highly creative artistic photography and collage work.

On the fourth floor, we enjoyed a beautiful exhibition called “Visible/Invisible”. Curated by Kamini Sawhney, Arnika Ahldag, Vaishnavi Kambadur, Riya Kumar and Arshad Hakim, this show explores the visual representation of women in artworks through the ages. Words alone can not do justice to the impactful nature of the display, but I will give you a rough idea of its range. In addition to paintings, modern and old, there are sculptures; photographs; tapestries,; traditional textiles; prints; and a video installation. Most of the artworks in this show were created by Indians or members if the Indian diaspora. The show successfully demonstrates how women have been portrayed over the centuries and how this has changed, especially more recently.

The fifth floor has a terrace from which there are some great views. There were some tables and chairs up there, but the café, if it exists, was not open.

Some years ago, we were in Bangalore when its branch of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) was opened in a restored palatial mansion near the Bangalore Golf Club. A beautifully designed annex was built next to the old building. When it was opened, I decided that it was a ‘must-see’ attraction in Bangalore. It remains so, but MAP in its newly constructed home will join NGMA amongst my suggestions of what should not be missed by visitors (and inhabitants) in Bangalore.

Three men and a trolley

One man pulls the trolley. Another stands on the trolley, pulling a lever back and forth. The lever operates a pump that sends water from a tank (on the trolley) along a hosepipe to a third man, who is holding its end and spraying the flowers.

In India, there is no shortage of manpower and wages are not high. So, employing three men to do what a costly sprinkler system would do in Western Europe makes sense and gives employment to those who have families to feed.