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Bonds and Fractures: Asian Art Museum Exhibition Sheds Light on the Rama Epic

Ravana takes the fields against Lakshmana and Hanuman, detail of a page from the Mewar Ramayana, 1649–1653, by Sahiubdin (Indian, active 1625–1660). Opaque watercolors on paper. The British Library, Add. 15297(1) f.60or. Front cover of the exhibition catalogue.

Ravana takes the fields against Lakshmana and Hanuman, detail of a page from the Mewar Ramayana, 1649–1653, by Sahiubdin (Indian, active 1625–1660). Opaque watercolors on paper. The British Library, Add. 15297(1) f.60or. Front cover of the exhibition catalogue.

This winter, projects and holidays conspired to prevent me from catching the Asian’s current exhibition, The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe until late in its run. Now there remains just a week left to see the show, and before I say anything else let me say that you should stop reading this and go catch it right now.

The Rama Epic is a major exhibition that was organized by the Asian under the direction of Forrest McGill, Wattis Senior Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the museum, and it draws materials from a wide region. Included are 135 objects from India, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia. The objects, of the highest quality and carefully chosen to highlight the exhibition narrative, were drawn from institutions including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Asia Society, the British Library and British Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Harvard Art Museums, LACMA, the Met, the Guimet, MFA Boston, the Peabody Essex, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Museum Rietberg Zurich, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, the V&A, and several others, in addition to the Asian’s own respected collections. This is an extraordinary gathering together of materials that must have been a formidable undertaking for the organizers.

The Rama epic, best known in the West through the Ramayana of Valmiki, is of course, along with the Mahabharata, one of the key sources of narrative in South and Southeast Asia, not only (as the exhibition illustrates) for Hindus but also for Buddhists, Muslims, and others of the region’s peoples. (McGill compares it to the King Arthur stories; comparison could also be made to the Homeric epics and tales of the Bible.) As a result, many variations of the stories exist. The exhibition conveys the diversity of the Rama stories, as expressed in a wide range of places and times, while also distilling them down to their underlying essence.

It does this by focusing on four key figures, presented as the Hero, the Heroine, the Ally, and the Foe. These are Rama, his wife Sita, the monkey warrior Hanuman, and the demon king Ravana. Through a succession of artworks arranged to highlight these four figures, the complexities and controversies of the epic emerge, while even visitors who are not much familiar with the stories gradually come to understand its essential structure.

Reduced to bare bones, the story is this: Rama, an avatar of the Hindu deity Vishnu, is born a prince of an Indian kingdom. His worthiness is evident and also proven by challenges, yet he is prevented from ascending to the kingship by palace intrigues. He meets and weds the faithful Sita. Always he is accompanied by his constant companion, his brother Lakshmana. Exiled from the city of his birth, Rama and his companions live for years in a forest wilderness. There a female demon attempts to seduce the brothers. Appalled by this prospect, Lakshmana hacks off her ears and nose, which must have done little to improve her presentability. She complains to her brother, the powerful demon Ravana, and things go downhill from there. Soon warfare engulfs everyone.

Through trickery, Ravana succeeds in kidnapping Sita, and Rama must lead an army to find and recover her. Chief among his warriors is the bold and powerful Hanuman, who succeeds in locating the captive and who distinguishes himself in the ensuing battles. Eventually Rama kills Ravana, Sita is freed, and Rama is crowned king. But false rumors circulate that Sita might not have been faithful to Rama during her captivity. To prove her fidelity, she enters and emerges unscathed from a bonfire. In many versions of the story this dubiously happy ending settles matters, but in others Sita’s trial by fire still does not satisfy some of the kingdom’s malicious gossips, and Rama, putting good governance over his own feelings for Sita, sends her packing. After many years in exile, she is returned, only to be asked once again to submit to the fiery proof. But by this time she has finally had enough. Calling on her mother, the goddess of the earth, as a witness, she is swallowed into a great opening in the ground—whose fault was that?—and she disappears forever. In this bittersweet version of the ending, Rama then abandons his earthly form and ascends to the heavens.

In many ways it is a story of bonds and fractures. Constancy and inconstancy are the, well, constant themes. Some works that highlight these motifs can give a sense of the content of the exhibition (though the diversity of works is far greater than I can show here).

The invisible Indrajit fires arrows at Rama and his allies; end panel from a box (detail), ca. 1500–1600. Sri Lanka. Ivory. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Friends of Indian Art and the Robert A. and Ruth W. Fisher Fund, 2004.16.

The invisible Indrajit fires arrows at Rama and his allies; end panel from a box (detail), ca. 1500–1600. Sri Lanka. Ivory. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Friends of Indian Art and the Robert A. and Ruth W. Fisher Fund, 2004.16.

Among the bonds is the constant friendship of Rama and his brother Lakshmana. Lakshmana never wavers in his support of Rama, and the two experience many adventures together. This sixteenth-century ivory relief from Sri Lanka depicts the brothers’ falling victim to arrows fired by Ravana’s faithful son Indrajit, who has become invisible.

 

Hanuman returns with medicinal plants, 1775–1780. India; Himachal Pradesh state, former kingdom of Guler. Opaque watercolors and gold on paper. Museum Rietberg Zurich, collection of Eva and Konrad Seitz, B40.

Hanuman returns with medicinal plants, 1775–1780. India; Himachal Pradesh state, former kingdom of Guler. Opaque watercolors and gold on paper. Museum Rietberg Zurich, collection of Eva and Konrad Seitz, B40.

Hanuman is equally constant. After the brothers are grievously injured by Indrajit, Hanuman brings healing herbs from the Himalayas to revive them. Unsure which herbs would work best, he carries back the entire mountaintop, as shown in this eighteenth-century painting from northern India.

The demon giant Kumbhakama battles Rama’s armies of monkeys and bears, ca. 1605. India; possibly Madhya Pradesh state, former kingdom of Datia. Opaque watercolors and gold on paper. Asian Art Museum, gift of the Connoisseurs’ Council with additional funding from Fred M. and Nancy Livingston Levin, the Shenson Foundation, in memory of A. Jess Shenson, 2003. 3.

The demon giant Kumbhakama battles Rama’s armies of monkeys and bears, ca. 1605. India; possibly Madhya Pradesh state, former kingdom of Datia. Opaque watercolors and gold on paper. Asian Art Museum, gift of the Connoisseurs’ Council with additional funding from Fred M. and Nancy Livingston Levin, the Shenson Foundation, in memory of A. Jess Shenson, 2003. 3.

Constancy also features on the demonic side of the conflict. Ravana’s giant brother, Kumbhakarna, is something of a comic figure, but a complex one. Despite disapproving of Ravana’s actions, he feels obligated by fraternal bonds to fight on Ravana’s behalf. Here, in a seventeenth-century Indian painting, he battles an army of monkeys and bears, allies of Rama.

 

Mourning for the death of Ravana, and preparations for his funeral, from the Mewar Ramayana, 1649–1653, by Sahibdin (Indian, active ca. 1625–1660). Opaque watercolors on paper. The British Library, Add. 15297(1) f.173r.

Mourning for the death of Ravana, and preparations for his funeral, from the Mewar Ramayana, 1649–1653, by Sahibdin (Indian, active ca. 1625–1660). Opaque watercolors on paper. The British Library, Add. 15297(1) f.173r.

Kumbhakarna’s decision to battle to the death for Ravana is contrasted with the path taken by another of his brothers, Vibhishana. Like Kumbhakarna, Vibhishana was outspoken in criticizing Ravana. Unlike him, he goes over to the enemy and fights alongside Rama. What does fidelity mean in this case? By being true to his beliefs is he untrue to his brothers? In the lower left of this seventeenth-century painting depicting mourning for the death of Ravana, Vibhishana— who has refused to carry out traditional funeral rites, arguing that Ravana was cruel and despotic—is upbraided by Rama, who says that Ravana was nonetheless heroic in battle.

 

Sita’s trial by fire, ca. 1940, by Jamini Roy (Indian, 1887–1972) or workshop. Opaque watercolors on cardboard. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Given by Mr. J. C. Irwin, IS.49-1979.

Sita’s trial by fire, ca. 1940, by Jamini Roy (Indian, 1887–1972) or workshop. Opaque watercolors on cardboard. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Given by Mr. J. C. Irwin, IS.49-1979.

Many more instances of fidelity and infidelity appear in the epic. A Structuralist critic could have a field day diagramming all the binary oppositions. But the core case is that of Rama and Sita. Sita remained faithful throughout her long captivity, despite Ravana’s pressures. Yet Rama appears to treat her as if she had been sullied, despite never believing this had happened. Many will feel that Sita—“an abused wife and yet a feminist heroine,” according to Sally J. Sutherland Goldman in the exhibition catalogue—has been treated unfairly. In this 1940 painting by the modernist Indian painter Jamini Roy (or his workshop), Sita sits enigmatically amid the flames during her trial by fire.

Sita, ca. 1893, by Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916). Pastel, conté crayon, and charcoal on paper. The Art Institute of Chicago, Joseph Winterbotham Collection, 1954.320.

Sita, ca. 1893, by Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916). Pastel, conté crayon, and charcoal on paper. The Art Institute of Chicago, Joseph Winterbotham Collection, 1954.320.

Equally enigmatic is a painting of Sita by Odilon Redon. Redon said of it that “a title is only justified when it is a little vague, and even aims confusedly at the equivocal.”

Moral dilemmas abound in the Rama stories, and people have debated them for centuries. I have only been able to touch on a few here. I strongly urge anyone who can make it to go see this show, now in its final week, before its marvelous artworks return to their lenders or to storage.

For those who can’t make it to the city this week, the exhibition catalogue (handsomely designed by Wilsted & Taylor) is organized along the same lines as the exhibition. It is a must-have for anyone with an interest in South or Southeast Asian art and culture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanksgiving playlist

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

This playlist mainly features traditional jazz, R&B, and Latin.

Enjoy!

My Nightmare

trump as the white queen

I’m having the most terrible dream. Please, somebody wake me up.

Nerfy Po

nerf hoop

nerf hoop

Nerf ball stuck at the net. In the early to mid 1990s I often engaged in epic nerfball contests with Po Brons0n., Who had the upper hand? I can’t say, but Po was ever a formidable opponent, that’s for sure.

 

 

The current workspace

workspace

The hummingbird visits the iochroma outside the window at left every day  midmorning to early afternoon.

Ten thoughts on Carl Hiaasen’s Razor Girl

razor-girl

I read Carl Hiassen’s Razor Girl after seeing several rave reviews, such as two in the New York Times (“irresistible”  and “elegant”), one from NPR (“hilarious”), and one in Kirkus Reviews (“unbridled fictional invention”). The book is currently no. 2 on the NYT hardcover fiction best-seller list.

I had read Hiaasen before, so I knew what sort of thing to expect. While the novel mostly delivered on expectations, I did not like the book so much as those reviewers. A few thoughts:

  1. The book could be thought of as a kind of parody detective story, similar to The Big Lebowski. Donald E. Westlake and John D. MacDonald seem to be influences.
  2. Hiaasen’s characters are mostly stereotypes: the ruthless mob boss, the rapacious lawyer, the slutty gold-digging girlfriend (a favorite: there are a number of these), the weaselly Hollywood agent, the dumb-as-subsoil thug, the racist cracker, and so on. He disguises their conventionality through grotesque flourishes and exaggerations. Grotesquery is one of his strengths, but some experienced fiction readers might find this an insufficient alternative to actual character development.
  3. The manic character exaggerations are matched by an overheated storyline. Together with the lack of character depth and story-oriented exposition, this gives the book a brittle quality.
  4. Hiaasen is an efficient writer. His grotesque elements are made more effective by a clear, compact prose. He  has a talent for colorful compounds  — shitweasel, fuckwit, numbnuts, thundercunt, fuckwhistle, shitsucker, and so on.
  5. This sometimes manifests in dialogue: “Baby, you kiss like a blowfish on batteries.”
  6. The best idea behind Razor Girl is a Duck Dynasty parody. A television reality show features four brothers who are presented as Louisiana poultry farmers. The kidnapping of the alpha brother by a crazed fan who as ransom demands being added to the show as a fifth brother is the fulcrum for the plot. The kidnapping occasions a crise de foi in the victim —an excellent concept, but Hiaasen never really gets sufficiently into the victim’s head.
  7. The bayou brothers are presented as Louisiana poultry farmers; in fact they are accordion players from Milwaukee. But as a former Wisconsonian, I can report there is rich material there that remains almost entirely unmined by Hiaasen, whose backstories are always sketchy.
  8. The title concept, which alludes to car crashes perpetrated as a con by a young woman engaged in mechanical vaginal hygiene, is not as fascinating as Hiaasen appears to believe.
  9. Hiaasen’s heroes are stoners who love nature and sex and his villains are connivers who love money and sex. Mostly they fight over nature and money but sometimes they meet over sex.
  10. Potentially the most interesting character could have been Buck Nance, “Captain Cock” of the Bayou Brethren clan, as he is the only character who undergoes any development over the course of the novel. Unfortunately, his development is sketchy.

The story arc did not contain many surprises, though Hiaasen certainly makes the details distinctive. This is a diverting book that you will probably want to read quickly so that it doesn’t take up too much of your time.

Razor Girl
by Carl Hiaasen
Powells.com

 

 

 

Carol and Max near Desert Hot Springs

Carol and Max near Desert Hot Springs

Carol and Max near Desert Hot Springs

Carol and Max near Desert Hot Springs.

I think of this photo as having a bit of a Richard Misrach quality.

Again. And again.

Again. And again. SFMOMA promo mailing.

Again. And again. SFMOMA promo mailing.

Museums, let’s face it, tend not to be good at marketing their product. This envelope contained a membership pitch. Is “Experience it all. Again. And again.” supposed to whip me into a frenzy of art lust? Or is it supposed to be ironic?

Who knows? But all it actually does is make me as weary as Madeline Kahn’s character in Blazing Saddles (she’s been with hundreds of men, again and again).

delvaux-veilleur

“Writing” posts at blog.rightreading.com

A few of my books

A few of my books.

Here you will find posts tagged “writing” on blog.rightreading.com. But really the majority of posts here pertain to writing.

For a page devoted to some of my own books, go here.

A new look for blog.rightreading.com

The former look of this blog (since around 2006)

The former look of this blog (since around 2006).

It’s been a long time since I’ve updated the look of this blog, mainly because I had customized so many features that I never had the heart to undertake an update. But it’s gotten long in the tooth, and as you can see from the above image, it wastes a lot of screen real estate in the empty screen areas at right and left. It was a thing at the time, and I don’t even remember why.

In addition, the blog was not designed to be responsive. You could use a plugin like wp-touch or the newer mobile feature in jetpack (currently experiencing bugs) to get a mobile version, but those are ultimately makeshifts. This design by Anders Norén is distinguished by thoughtful typography and a clean look, and it is fully responsive. I decided to go ahead and effect the transition, even though I’ve only just begun my customizations, and I’m sure much will turn out to be broken. But in the end I think it will be good, and for now it is, I hope, readable.

Shaky times at the Met

 

New York Times article on Met layoffs

New York Times article on Met layoffs (click through for web version).

After a $3 million rebranding that was “widely derided,” the Met is cutting some 100 jobs (following voluntary buy-outs). Facing tens of millions of dollars in deficits, director Thomas Campbell plans to rack up profits through what we all know is the easiest possible way: “We are putting greater emphasis on our publications.”

Old (left) and new (right) Metropolitan Museum of Art logos, and 1970s-era Metropolitan Opera logo (center)

Old (left) and new (right) Metropolitan Museum of Art logos, and 1970s-era Metropolitan Opera logo (center).

The Met rebranding was supposed to make the museum look more contemporary. Yet it bears a striking resemblance to the Metropolitan opera logo from about forty years ago. Back to the future?

 

spritz-header

Fame un spritz : the lyrics

Sir Oliver Skardy & Fahrenheit 451 - Fame un spritz

Sir Oliver Skardy & Fahrenheit 451 – Fame un spritz.

I found the lyrics to this tune, which I posted here in 2010 and recently reposted over at Tom’s Garden.

I make out the first line to be “Make me a spritz, make me a spritz, make it good with a slice of lemon.” But the Italian is unconventional, I guess a Veneto dialect, and if anyone more accomplished than me can provide a full translation I would love to hear it.

This would be a good tune for a ukulele.

 

Fame un spritz – Sir Oliver Skardy & Fahrenheit 451

Fame un spritz, fame un spritz, famelo bon co ‘na fetta de limon
Che caldana par Venessia in camminada umido, suori, maieta petada
le alghe fa spussa da fogna
se bevo so come ‘na spugna
A mexogiorno so come ‘na fritata go la gola che par carta vetrata l’oasi del campo se ciama ostaria xe meio ‘na sosta, dopo vado via
Sta ostaria che xe sempre be?a piena
chi xoga le carte chi va via a pansa piena ti magni, ti bevi e ala fine ti paghi
vecioti o studenti va tutti imbriaghi
Costava poco un spritz ai nostri tempi desso xe un lusso par fighetti dementi
‘Ndemo fora a ciapa?r un fia? de aria caigo fisso dal Lido ala Baia
bicieri de carta, bicieri de vero
ma queo de sora xe incassa? nero
Largo ai giovani, va remengo el vecio, gerimo in cale el ne ga lava? col secio
el dise che el xe stufo, che ciama la Polissia e dopo i se domanda perche? i fioi scampa via
Fame un spritz, fame un spritz, famelo bon co ‘na fetta de limon
tanto ‘ndemo fora a tirar su un trombon

Trump Destroyer

Trump Remover

Trump Remover.

Right Reading does not normally do product recommendations. But recently we ordered this product, and so far we are encouraged by the results. You just drill down. The label does advise that “the decomposition, depending on the density of the trump, make take several weeks or months.”

nature-lab-featured

Friday Roundup

At RISD's Nature Lab (photo via Audubon magazine)

At RISD’s Nature Lab (photo via Audubon magazine)

“Every separation is a link.” — Simone Weil

Rogue Bibliophile: 2500 AD, by Tom Gauld

Rogue Bibliophile: 2500 AD, by Tom Gauld

Also died Sevan Tethys, years ago, Thomas Christensen wrote tasty

some Chinese website

1616 was an eventful year, the British Shakespeare died, the Spanish side of the car also died Sevan Tethys, years ago, Thomas Christensen wrote tasty Universal Modern History, interception of the title of the year is 1616, the year of motion! Shakespeare referred to the book and the death of the Cypriot public, as if that were not the Soul Lihen Tang Gongzi, it was not bad, anyway, but I can not Linchuan Four Dreams realize what’s contemporary …

(Excerpt)

So Google translates … something. An article or a catalogue, I guess. I’d give a link if I was sure it wasn’t some ripoff. Regardless, though I don’t know what the original says in Chinese, I think the big G’s translation is marvelous.

 

 

 

San Francisco Chronicle Sportswriting Strained Conceit Awards for May 12, 2016

road closed sign

People who skip the sports section miss some extraordinary writing.

Advancing to the Western Conference finals, a championship team will step up its game. And the San Francisco Chronicle sportswriting team did not disappoint. Today’s Sporting Green is an astonishing mix of strained conceits, purple patches, and semi-literate clichés. Let’s focus on the conceits. Here are our awards.

STRAINED CONCEIT CHAMPION

This award has to go to Bruce Jenkins, who writes:

Cruising a straight-line highway with another NBA championship in mind, the Warriors always knew there would be an intersection when the playoffs arrived. The signpost would read SAN ANTONIO, and everyone around the league was in on the secret. ¶ Well, it seems there’s a maintenance crew about ready to change the lettering ….

A highway sign that everyone knows about but is nonetheless a secret, which a maintenance crew is preparing to reletter. Riiiiggght. (What he means is “The Warriors expected to play the Spurs but they might play the Thunder instead.”)

STRAINED CONCEIT RUNNER UP

A trumped-up story many writers got mileage from (on Bruce Jenkins’s straight-line highway?) was Dubs forward Draymond Green saying before the game that Portland was done in the series. It inspired Rusty Simmons to write this:

If their teammate was publicly going to out on a limb [sic] like that, they had to reinforce the tree.

Good thing a maintenance crew is already on the scene!

STRAINED CONCEIT HONORABLE MENTION

Scott Ostler’s conceit is not in the same category as these. It’s too good not to quote. He writes that last year’s Warriors team

were like kids on their first trip to Disneyland. This season they’re Mickey Mouse, taking a break behind the castle, removing his head to have a smoke before wading back out there to wave and thrill the kiddies.

Nifty shift from plural to singular there.

So there you have it. All of these guys must have read Raymond Chandler at an impressionable age.

I’ll resist the urge to introduce additional categories, such as the “BIG SAVINGS FROM LAYING OFF THE COPY EDITORS AWARD.” That’s a dull category in which there is competition every day. Today it could go to Simmons for writing “to out” instead of “to go out,” but I would give it instead to Ann Killion for “ Portland grew it’s lead to double digits.”

*

For more examples, from “he ain’t no one-engine pony” to “his ceiling is through the roof” to “I have to put my head to the grindstone and keep grinding” to “I’m going to turn this team around 360 degrees,” visit my Away with Words.

 *

Image via http://bit.ly/1s2hC0k

Beyond Shakespeare at The Critical Flame

"Beyond Shakespeare" at <em>The Critical Flame</em>

“Beyond Shakespeare” at The Critical Flame.

Thanks to Daniel Pritchard and the Critical Flame for publishing my short opinion piece on Shakespeare and globalism. I wrote the piece in conjunction with my participation in the 1616 Symposium held at Rhodes College in April.

The Critical Flame is a great online magazine devoted to encouraging “intelligent public discussion about literature and culture through long-form literary and critical essays covering a wide range of topics.”

.

hummingbird-iochroma

Photography at Tom’s Garden

Senicio talinoides at Tom's Garden

Senicio talinoides at Tom’s Garden.

If anyone is interested in my garden photography, have a look at Tom’s Garden. The current post is a May Day assessment, from which this image is drawn.

Sticky posts

Sorry, folks, for all these category sticky posts, which will head pages in various categories and gradually gather together helpful links outside the blog relevant to them. I don’t think I can remove them from the blog home, but they will slide down the page soon enough. This is all the result of recent website reorganization in which I have begun using separate home pages for desktop and mobile devices.

Art and illustration at rightreading.com

This post will be sticky in the “art and illustration” category. This is the parent category that includes graphic design, photography, photoshop, and typography posts, so there will be some redunduncy with those child categories.

For a gallery of some of my own artwork, click this screenshot:

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