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naggar deodars

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On the lower mountain slope, the village and ancient regional capital of Naggar presides over the Kullu Valley in Himachal Pradesh, surrounded by orchards and forests of majestic deodars, the Himalaya cedars whose name derives from the Sanskrit devadāru, tree/wood of the gods.

rishikesh ads

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The town of Rishikesh lies in the Himalaya foothills, where the river Ganges comes flowing out of the mountains. Since gaining fame in the West as the retreat of a certain British pop group in 1968, the "yoga capital of the world" has seen an ever-expanding spiritual health industry, with gigantic ashrams dotting the river banks. According to Wikipedia (entry sanitized today; its source advertorial is still available) The Times of India, "the place is charged with spiritual energy."

varanasi dawn

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Varanasi, formerly Benares, also Kashi, the Hindu holy city has since time immemorial worshipped the river goddess Ganga from its ghats. Not surprisingly, the most auspicious time for puja has always been at dawn, when the heat, dust, noise and pollution have not yet crowded out the river's serenity. Above is Asi Ghat.

mughal flowers

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The Indo-Perso-Islamic culture of the Mughal empire left much celebrated architecture, including the palaces of Delhi's Red Fort and Agra Fort as well as one of the most famous tombs in the world, the "teardrop on the face of eternity" of the Taj Mahal. One striking feature in all their splendor is the use of flower decorations - roses, lotus flowers, flowering trees. Deviating from the starkly abstract arabesques of Western (from the vantage point of India) Muslem art, it allowed an element of almost frivolous exuberance to creep into their devotion.

mumbai slogans

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A sample of Mumbaikar humor...

mumbai skies

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Mumbai's peninsular, tropical location on the Arabian sea creating some impressive skyscapes...

indian infinity

India is all about infinity - an infinity of gods and myths, beliefs and languages, races and cultures; in everything, and everywhere one looks, there is this dizzying endlessness.

In 'Travels with Herodotus' Ryszard Kapuściński described his first assignment as a journalist who didn't speak English in India, in the 1950s. A book he used to acquaint himself with Indian thought was Paul Deussen's 'Outlines of Indian Philosophy', published in 1907.

"Deussen reproaches Europeans," Kapuściński notes:

"European idleness," [Deussen] complains, "tries to escape the study of Indian philosophy" - though perhaps "despair" is the more accurate motive since, in the course of four thousand years of uninterrupted development, this philosophy has evolved into a system so immense and immeasurable as to intimidate and paralyze all but the most hardened daredevil and enthusiast. Furthermore, in Hinduism the sphere of the unfathomable is boundless, and the rich variety of what lies within it is characterized by the most bewildering, mutually contradictory, and stark contrasts, the boundaries between material things and mystical phenomena are fluid and fleeting, one becomes the other or, simply, eternally is the other; being is transformed into nothingness, disintegrates and metamorphoses into the cosmos, into a celestial omnipresence, into a divine way that disappears into the depths of bottomless nonbeing.

bombay to mumbai

When the city of Bombay was renamed into Mumbai in 1995, it was a different kind of name change than, say, Peking to Beijing. Rather than correcting pronunciation, the city chose a different etymology.

The official reason for the change was to undo colonial anglicization of the city's original name, so called after its patron deity Mumbadevi. Her name, in turn, derived from the Sanskrit Mahā-Ambā Devi, Great Mother Goddess.

The name Bombay, however, can be traced back to the Portuguese conquerors of the 16th century, who called the place Bom Bahia, or good bay. This name was indeed later anglicized to Bombay. But linguistically there is no relation, let alone corruption, between Bombay and Mumbai - and it seems a curious coincidence that the two names sound so alike.

Over a decade before the name change, Salman Rushdie told the tale of the city's origins in his novel 'Midnight's Children' (1981):

...at the dawn of time, when Bombay was a dumbbell-shaped island tapering, at the centre, to a narrow shining strand beyond which could be seen the finest and largest natural harbour in Asia, when Mazagaon and Worli, Matunga and Mahim, Salsette and Colaba were islands, too - in short, before reclamation, before tetrapods and sunken piles turned the Seven Isles into a long peninsula like an outstretched, grasping hand, reaching westward into the Arabian Sea; in this primeval world before clocktowers, the fishermen - who were called Kolis - sailed in Arab dhows, spreading red sails against the setting sun. They caught pomfret and crabs, and made fishlovers of us all. (...)

There were also coconut and rice. And, above it all, the benign presiding influence of the goddess Mumbadevi, whose name - Mumbadevi, Mumbabai, Mumbai - may well have become the city's. But then, the Portuguese named the place Bom Bahia for its harbour, and not for the goddess of the pomfret folk ... the Portuguese were the first invaders, using the harbour to shelter their merchant ships and their men-of-war; but then, one day in 1633, an East Indian Company Officer named Methwold saw a vision. This vision - a dream of a British Bombay, fortified, defending India's West against all comers - was a notion of such force that it set time in motion. History churned ahead; Methwold died; and in 1660, Charles II of England was betrothed to Catharine of the Portuguese House of Braganza - that same Catharine who would, all her life, play second fiddle to orange-selling Nell. But she has this consolation - that it was her marriage dowry which brought Methwold's vision a step closer to reality. After that, it wasn't long until September 21st, 1668, when the Company at last got its hands on the island ... and then off they went, with their Fort and land-reclamation, and before you could blink there was a city here, Bombay, of which the old tune sang:

Prima in Indis,
Gateway to India,
Star of the East
With her face to the West.

staging silence ii

In his short film 'Staging Silence II' (2013), Belgian artist Hans Op de Beeck creates and destroys model worlds with godlike obsession. The sheer artificiality of these landscapes, constructed and manipulated by the artist's ghostly hands, makes us wonder whether the world around us might not be a backdrop as well. But then there are moments when his creations become magically, cinematically real... and we suspend our disbelief.

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'Staging Silence II' starts where its predecessor, 'Staging Silence' (2009), left off, with a barren landscape of trees. Both films share the same basic concept, though the second part feels more fully articulated. They show the painstaking creation of a succession of miniature natural, urban and interior landscapes on a studio table, filmed in black and white.

In many cases the landscapes are made using ordinary materials - a potato rock garden, a chocolate bar alley, a sugar cube city - adding to the magic when they are transformed into 'real' scenes. Another key component is the film's soundtrack, composed by Scanner, blending ambient music with a sound design that subtly enhances the landscapes' illusion.

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But realism is not what Op de Beeck is after. Rather, he shows us the unstable, temporary quality of the spaces that surround us.

As carefully as it is constructed, each landscape is also deconstructed again, revealing the controlled environment of the studio where the artist patiently builds up a new illusion. With its static frontal perspective and the artist's hands constantly seen working on the mise en scène, the film thus becomes a performance, greatly condensed of course, as each scene must be the result of hours, days, weeks of tinkering. It's like we're watching an existential puppet show - minus the puppets, all we get are the backdrops - of continuous creation and destruction.

This also explains the film's title, as the scenes are all conspicuously empty and devoid of people. Op de Beeck stages the silence of empty spaces - the meditative quiet of a Vermeer interior, the stillness of a Japanese garden, or even the after-hours desolation of a Tati cityscape.

At the same time he keeps reminding us of the stage.

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'Staging Silence II' is currently shown as part of Out There, a Viewmaster exhibition in Rotterdam of video and photography focusing on landscapes. It features classic works like the serenely metamorphosing landscapes of Driessens & Verstappen's 'Kennemerduinen 2007 scene B' and Michael Najjar's 'the invisible city', or the caleidoscopic manipulation of Las Vegas cityscapes in Nicolas Provost's 'Storyteller'.

Most works are exhibited outdoors, which in subzero weather makes attentive viewing a challenge. Then again, landscapes usually require some effort from their beholders.

Update: More on Out There at Trendbeheer (in Dutch).

iffr: bitter lake

Adam Curtis' new documentary got a world cinema premiere at IFFR as part of the Signals: Everyday Propaganda program. In his trademark style, narrated as a history of ideas and illustrated with seldom-seen footage from the BBC archives, 'Bitter Lake' again digs at the roots of our current political discontent. But this time, in what amounts to an upping the ante response to his critics and parodians, Curtis subverts his own format, forcing viewers to rethink their regular spoonfed media diet.

Ironically, this experimental form has meant 'Bitter Lake' was launched on the web, on BBC's iplayer, rather than on TV.

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The doc focuses on the recent invasion of Afghanistan, and traces the pattern of how world powers from the British to the Soviets to the Americans have all bitten the dust in this remote, inhospitable country where nothing is what it seems. With this historical reality already too nuanced for most news coverage (and/or propaganda spin), it's not surprising that Curtis treats Afghanistan as symbolic for how Western powers increasingly project their own simplified narratives onto complex realities.

As he writes in an introduction on his weblog:

The film shows in detail how all the foreigners who went to Afghanistan created an almost totally fictional version of the country in their minds. They couldn't see the complex reality that was in front of them - because the stories they had been told about the world had become so simplified that they lacked the perceptual apparatus to see reality any longer.

One scene shows an American soldier taking a saliva swab and retina scan from an Afghan man, creating cringingly colonial echoes of Europeans measuring Africans' skulls a century or two ago. The discomfort is compounded by the soldier's smug reliance on the tiny screen through which he views this local, in the same way that we (where is Afghanistan again?) view the entire country through the pastel-colored simplification of a map on our screen.

Indeed it's striking, and rather scary, to see the extent to which modern warfare is conducted on screens, from remote-controlled drones to night-vision equipped troops... to the televised war for us jaded Westerners at home.

This motif of mediated and thus sanitized war leads to the most interesting aspect of 'Bitter Lake', the meta-narrative Curtis tells by breaking open the conventional documentary format. With access to the thousands of hours of raw BBC news footage shot in Afghanistan in recent years, he is able to show unedited, 'unusable' news images - reality as it went on after the "Back to the studio, here is the weather" cut.

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In a harrowing instance of frontline filming, the camera lens gets splattered with a thick drop of blood, which the camera operator tries to wipe off while running for cover. The chaos of this moment - not the carefully orchestrated thick of things in Hollywood war movies but real, red-blurry mess - jolts us out of TV complacency to show the absurdity of 'covering' a war in thirty second items.

Curtis explains:

These complicated, fragmentary and emotional images evoke the chaos of real experience. And out of them i have tried to build a different and more emotional way of depicting what really happened in Afghanistan. A counterpoint to the thin, narrow and increasingly destructive stories told by those in power today.

It means 'Bitter Lake' contains long stretches of raw, uncontextualized imagery - without a neatly explaining voice-over - that sabotage our story bias and make us watch these moments in a more tentative, questioning mode. Which template can we apply to these images - good vs. evil, generous vs. needy, technological vs. primitive - or do we need to accept that they don't fit, that things might be more complicated than that?

It has the strange, unfamiliar effect of watching the news for grown-ups.

And it provides yet another argument for avoiding news, at least in the form of journalists and politicians telling us simple stories in cozy collusion.