Lost Archives: Ootacamund Flowers

 “Without the gift of flowers and the infinite diversity of their fruits, man and bird, if they had continued to exist at all, would be today unrecognizable. The weight of a petal has changed the face of the world and made it ours”
Loren Eiseley, How Flowers Changed the World

Open your doors and look abroad
From your blossoming garden gather
fragrant memories of the vanished
flowers and plants of an hundred years before.     
Rabindranath Tagore, The Gardener

Between those two quotes lies a tale. And a memory. And an archive. As always, Loren Eiseley nails it. Flowers do change the face of the world. But equally, as Tagore reminds us, the weight of a vanished petal from a hundred years ago – whether in a forgotten garden or a missing archive – hangs heavy on the world and makes it less ours. Less diverse, less indescribably beautiful. Lost flowers damage us all. But so do century-old floral archives that go AWOL. Consider this …

I’m in the Nilgiris, in Ootacamund — the queen of hill stations — or, as its now officially known, Udhagamandalam. Despite the garbage, the dwindling shola forests (dwarf evergreens), the invasive eucalyptus, and the failed monsoon this year, the hills are spectacularly beautiful. But I’m not looking for the contemporary 21st century version of these places. My sights are set a few centuries prior. I’m focused on the archival rearview mirror.

So, scratch that beginning, and let me start again. Rewinding … I’m in the Neil-gherries! in Ooty! For that is the way the Blue Mountains and the hill station were spelt – and seen – by the first British residents in the early 19th century. And that is the world I’m chasing: the world of botanical art produced by these settlers as they documented and depicted the Neilgherries as both strange as well as intimately familiar. Botanically speaking, that is. Strange in that the foreign flora included exotic native plants unique to its slopes,  chief among them being the blue wildflower shrub Kurinji, Strobilanthes kunthiana, which blooms only every 12 years and gives the NilGiris, the Blue Mountains, their name. Familiar in that the vegetation and landscape of these open grass-covered hills also reminded these homesick Britons of Blighty! Whether the comparisons made were with rolling Sussex downs or Scottish highlands or even – for those who hated the Neilgherries’ rainy season – with Lusitanian gloom!  The cool, temperate hill climate was pronounced ideal for British constitutions. And so the hills became further domesticated even as they were colonized. By the late 19th century, the Neilgherries had become – sometimes even more than was possible in the narrower, rockier, steeper Himalayan hill stations – idyllic little pockets of England-in-India providing much needed green respite from the burning alluvial plains and the hot Deccan plateau. Continue reading


Sometimes an entire city can feel like an ajeebghar, a museum of wonder.

Sell your soul to get to Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival. You’ll find it there again, I promise. Over and over again. And it won’t sneak up on you quietly either. Expect high drama at every turn and you won’t be disappointed.

For this is a decidedly dramatic city. A physically dramatic city. When I took the train up from London, a friend advised me to sit on the right side for the views and indeed, that first glimpse of the North Sea along the Scottish coastline is gasp-worthy.  But stunning as that is, it merely sets the stage for Edinburgh’s brooding, craggy beauty of contrasts. Which other edgy, Trainspotting, 21st century city on the planet whose identity is forged in Celtic history and a literature-soaked, Scottish Enlightenment past can also boast an extinct volcano and glacial fjords (the Firth of Forth!), lochs and leiths, crags and tails, medieval castles in Old Town, a Georgian-era planned New Town, green belts, four botanic gardens (including the astonishingly beautiful 400 year old Royal Botanic Garden, the subject of my next post), screeching seagulls, salt air and that sexy brogue, the world’s best single malt whiskeys and most notorious dish of offal (yes, haggis, I mean you. you weren’t so bad after all), sheep and salmon, mud and fog, gentle mist and violent storm.

And then there are the museums, my ajeebghars of choice, offering their own dramas and histories of Edinburgh. So many superb world-class museums, many of them funded by the city, strewn along the Royal Mile or the Waters of Leith, a green, gurgling riverside walk that made our eyes ache with the beauty of it all. The National Gallery of Contemporary Art (where we saw a definitive exhibition on Surrealist Art). The Surgeon’s Hall Museum (which in its heyday included the offices of Dr. Joseph Bell, inspiration for the character of Sherlock Holmes). The whimsical Museum of Childhood. The tell-it-like-is Museum of Edinburgh. The cozy little Writer’s Museum. The People’s Story Museum. The John Knox Museum. The Scottish Poetry Library. The cavern-like National Museum of Scotland (where we saw the blockbuster exhibition Celts: Arts and Identity). And on and on.

Years ago, as an avid follower of book art, I’d read about the famous Edinburgh book sculptures – eleven exquisitely crafted paper sculptures that were made by a single artist, and gifted anonymously to museums and libraries of the city, each inspired by a Scottish literary masterpiece – Treasure Island, Peter Pan, Lanark etc. The artist was nicknamed the Banksy of Books, and the rapturous press often focused on the books that inspired these 3D love letters to reading and ideas. Now, after tracking down some of these delicate paper dioramas and seeing them in the flesh (or is it woodpulp?), I had a flash of insight. Yes, they are paeans to reading and to books, certainly, but they are also paeans to Edinburgh’s ‘special places’. I understood why the artist may have wanted to pay such generous homage to the city’s extraordinary museums, cultural and literary centers in the first place. For they are that extraordinary, that deserving.

To say nothing about the friendliest, most helpful people you could hope to meet while traveling. This isn’t a place for sauntering – people stride purposefully here, even uphill, often with walking sticks. And it isn’t easy to get lost; the city is remarkably compact and walkable. But just open up a phone map, even, or look a little geographically confused, and at least three gentlefolk will descend on you – mid-stride – to ask if you need help, and then go out of their way to show you the way. Even if you’re climbing what seems to be a straight path upwards to the charmingly named Arthur’s Seat.

And I haven’t even touched on the Fringe yet. Oh Fringe Fest, you lovely cultural beast, delight for the artistic soul. Called the biggest performing arts festival in the world, it is monumental when you think of its sheer range, diversity, and raw creative energy. A staggering 50,000 performances of 4000+ shows in more than 200 venues all over the city. We were told, depending on who did the telling, to either watch out for the crowds, or to revel in them as they’d remind us of crowded Indian cities. And indeed, there are buskers and flyers everywhere, performers, comedians and magicians doing their business on each cobbled corner of the Royal Mile. It seems that the entire performance art world does gather here on annual cue, or at least its more adventurous and experimental fringe (which was the whole point when the Fringe Fest began convening more than 50 years ago)

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Chinese Wobblies

May 1 has evoked a mixed bag of emotions in our house for the longest time. Its a palimpsest; a layer cake. Yes, on the one hand there are all the celebrations embedded into the day. The pagan May Day celebrations (dating back to medieval European maypoles and the first day of summer) for one thing. And grafted onto that, the socialist International Workers of the World Day celebrations that began in Chicago (circa 1905) by the Wobblies, as they are affectionately known. And indeed, taking the two together, that is a lot to celebrate – Flower Power! The Power of Flowers! Flora, first day of summer, labor rights, the struggle for the 8-hour work day, industrial unions for the world, the Wobblies. What’s not to like about any of those? Who doesn’t love flowers? (and now that I study flora and botanical gardens, how can I stay away?). Who doesn’t love the Wobblies? Not to say anything about their strikingly beautiful (pun intended) Soviet-style poster iconography. Continue reading

Death of a House: A Forensic Tale


And so it ends. Or so it begins to end, for the dying has been slow and painful, and it isn’t over yet. The actual death knell will be struck only tomorrow when the house changes ‘registered’ owners just short of its 50th birthday. And then one day after that happens, because of the commercial development juggernaut that dictates our urban lives, a house, this house, seemingly indestructible, will – much like Monty Python’s dead parrot – simply cease to be. The demolition won’t happen overnight, of course. But at the whim of the builder-buyers, who will tear it down to make way for a 5-floor monstrosity of their choosing, it will soon be an ex-house. Already, it looks much the worse for wear, dusty, damaged, missing its main doors, jaws agape as if in permanent shock at its imminent fate.  It will likely stay like this for a while, hanging on its last hinges. But then sometime in the very near future, we will pass by that familiar corner, looking for it out of habit. And poof, the house would have disappeared without a trace. Continue reading

Medicine Corner!

COMING SOON!! To an Indian city near you …

A multi-city arts project from Wellcome Collection UK

Tabiyat: Medicine and Healing in India
An exhibition at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), Mumbai
12 January – 28 March 2016

A contemporary arts exhibition at Akar Prakar Gallery, Kolkata
18 January – 15 February 2016

BLOT! A workshop and live performance
The British Council, New Delhi
22 January 2016

Three cities. Three landmarks on the Indian arts scene. Three ways of exploring India’s diverse medical cultures from the popular to the professionalized, the exotic to the everyday, the mainstream to the marginal.   Medicine Corner, the overarching umbrella initiative, presents a cutting-edge introduction to the entire spectrum of health, healing and wellbeing in India as well as its astonishing plurality of healers, remedies, therapies and tonics.

Tabiyat: Medicine and Healing in India, the centerpiece exhibition on the history and modern practice of medicine, will open in Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji (formerly Prince of Wales) museum. Organized around four generic locations – Home, Shrine, Clinic and Street – Tabiyat draws on a range of historical and contemporary works from Wellcome Trust’s rich collections (being shown in India for the first time) in addition to material from Indian museums and private collections.

Jeevanchakra, to open in Akar Prakar Gallery, Kolkata, is a contemporary arts exhibition that revolves around the life cycle of the human body and its contacts with medical practice. It includes works by contemporary artists Gauri Gill, Nilima Sheikh, Sheba Chhachhi, Mithu Sen, and Paula Sengupta.

BLOT!, a Delhi-based media arts duo, will present a workshop and performance that examines India’s vast, parallel systems of informal health practice. In their one-day performance at the British Council, Delhi, BLOT! will raise critical issues of access, affordability and equity.

Medicine Corner is an initiative of Wellcome Collection in London, a key destination for the incurably curious.  Its Indian offering is a trifecta – a run of three surefire hits – that is guaranteed to delight, dazzle, and engage audiences. Don’t miss!

Project Head and Curator of Tabiyat: Ratan Vaswani

Thanksgifting 2015

My Thanksgiving this year turned south and Sufi.  As always on Turkey Day, my thoughts flew to feasts (I confess an unhealthy obsession with pecan pie), family, and colonial encounters (good bad ugly). Which are hardly unique topics; such seasonal preoccupations are universal on T-day.  But because this year it coincided with my time in Hyderabad during Heritage Week – a series of organized walks to tombs, gardens, monuments in the city – I’ve also been thinking about accidents.

Accidents of history, accidental journeys, accidental heritage – what we leave and what we take away, what we call new and what we call old, what’s serendipitous and of our choosing.  And the fact that Thanksgiving owes itself to one of navigation history’s major accidents. Some four hundred years ago, a Genovese explorer in search of spice routes landed in the Bahamas thinking it was India – proceeding to massacre both the lands he mistakenly named, and its ‘Indian’ peoples! No Thanks there, Columbus. Continue reading

Museum of Jurassic Technology

As the Monty Python folks would say … and now for something completely different!
Or completely strange. And completely wonderful.


Here’s some good, old-fashioned museum homage. To a 21st century Ajeeb Ghar/Wonder House. An Ajeeb Ghar to beat all Ajeeb Ghars: the odd and endlessly intriguing Museum of Jurassic Technology.

As a museum, its a unique one-off. Nothing you’ve seen or are likely to see in the 21st century American museum world quite prepares you for this. You arrive at a tiny, unprepossessing storefront off Venice Boulevard in L.A.  You look around, slightly baffled, even though the banner announces that you’re at the right place. You knock. But once you step inside, its magic. You are transported, “guided along as it were a chain of flowers into the mysteries of life” (as the opening quote from Charles Vincent Peale suggests) into a dimly lit museum space that seems oddly out of sync with the bustle outside, dedicated not to reason and certainty and what we know, but to imagination and uncertainty and what we don’t know. Continue reading

Curious Cabinets: Kunstkammer meets White Cube at the Salar Jung Museum

kgs gouache devi

K.G.Subramanyan, New Works, 2014 and How Strong the Breeze, How Precious The Flight, 2014
Parallel Exhibitions at the Salar Jung Museum, July 2014

And so it begins! Or so it began. What better place to start a museum blog titled Ajeeb Ghar/Wonder-House than in one of the strangest, most wonder-filled museums in India.. Lauded as the country’s third largest national museum, the Salar Jung museum is an idiosyncratic, one-man collection in Hyderabad that dates back three generations but achieved its current public museum form in 1951. And what better time to write about this strange museum than July 2013 when it opened its doors to two extraordinary contemporary art exhibitions: a 90th year retrospective of one of India’s most respected and beloved senior artists (K.G.Subramanyan); and a group show by graduating arts students at the other end of the career spectrum. Continue reading

So, what’s an Ajeeb Ghar anyway?

Worm sepia

Ajeeb Ghar, n./əʤi:b ghər/
Strange House, Wonder House, Magic House, Cabinet of Curiosity
Etymology: ajeeb < Urdu, strange, wondrous, wonderful, anomalous + ghar < Sanskri, home, residence, location.
Synonyms: Ajaib ghar, Ajeeb khana. Jadu ghar

First introduced to English-speaking readers of literary fiction through Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, the term Ajeeb Ghar continues to be used to refer to all museums in South Asia. The literal translation from the Urdu is Strange House or Wonder House.  But wonder and strange can have multiple meanings in the museum world.  The original and eponymous Ajeeb Ghar was the fabulous Lahore museum with which Kim opens, where Lockwood Kipling (Rudyard’s father) was curator. In Kim and other historical or literary accounts, Ajeeb Ghar was a magical – even wondrous – place where 18th and 19th century viewers encountered marvelous, astonishing things from around the world and across oceans, from royal palaces to everyday lives.

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