October 28, 2011

Nizwa: A Photo Essay

Folks, I feel a little writing burnt out lately, ha so I thought I would indulge in a photo-essay this time round with photos being the mainstay of this post...of course, I wouldn't be able to resist providing a little commentary/captions for the pictures but on the whole, the images will be doing the talking this time round.

A bit about Nizwa, though. Nizwa was a former capital of Oman and is situated in the hinterland, in the proximity of the Hajar mountain-ranges. Apart from being famous for its distinctive circular fort, which happens to be Oman's most visited monument,  it's also regionally renowned for its antique silver jewelry and other items and quality of silver workmanship. The Friday animal auction at the Nizwa souk, or bazaar, which is situated in the heart of the city, is also quite an experience, animals' cries punctuating the air as transactions are quickly and astutely conducted. Afterward, the successful buyers place their purchases in the back of their Toyota pick-up vehicles and one glimpses the goats or cow placidly snacking upon a sprig of fodder as they journey to their new homes. 

I took these images as winter was approaching in Oman and I still cannot help but gush over the sheer clarity and brilliance of the almost-winter light. The light thoroughly drenches the images and there is such a palpable feeling of freshness and vitality in them that one feels as if the moments captured are - still - very much happening...

Here is Nizwa as seen through my lens:

My kingdom: This gentleman radiates a regalesque aura as he surveys the proceedings, firmly gripping his scepter-like walking stick; the animal auction is on full-swing in the background and as for his goat charges: newly purchased or shortly to be sold? They wear as mysteriously inscrutable expressions as that of their owner
Talking shop over a goat: The animal auction starts around 7am on Friday morning and wraps up by noon, the caravan of goats, cows, bulls, and even, the occasional camels having departed for their new homes by then

Green-alert: The souk also sells fresh produce grown nearby; I like the way the green of the hedges' sunlit leaves mirrors that of the bananas in the box. And writing on the wall never fails to intrigue me...
Welcome: Omani doors or babs are particularly known for their wood detailing, which have many Indian design influences; however, I find the metal ones equally interesting with their designs and colors

Modernity and tradition conversing: In a sense, this image very much encapsulates the essence of contemporary Oman what with the juxtaposition of the ancient and  new. The mud walls form part of the old Nizwa souk, which the government has now renovated and refurbished. I thought the little boy dressed in the dish-dasha and typical Omani embroidered cap, kumma, added a further layer to the picture

Sleeping Structures: These decades-old mud structures built in the traditional fashion are located behind the souk; they are largely abandoned though, their former inhabitants preferring to live in concrete bungalows upon the outskirts of Nizwa. The shuttered windows indeed seem asleep, oblivious to the changes swirling around them

Langurous Shadows: The afternoon is spent, the shadows lengthen, and who knows what lies around the corner...

I will look forward to hearing what you thought of the photo-essay...

** Minutes after posting the above, I stumbled upon this post which basically talks about the Delhi Photo Festival. I really identified with much of the writer's well-articulated thoughts vis a vis photography and the terribly blurred lines between what constitutes as art or not. It is definitely an inspiration for a future post about my thoughts on what photography means to me...

October 22, 2011

The Wall Project: Jaisalmer Fort

Given the amount I post about Rajasthan on this blog, its alternative name could very well be: Rajasthan, Much?! In that context, when I had to travel to Jaisalmer last year for a journalism assignment, I surprisingly enough wasn't too excited about visiting it. Jaisalmer is situated near the India-Pakistan border and popularly known as the Golden City due to its architecture being wrought from indigenous honey-hued sandstone as well as the surrounding sand dunes. During my last visit there in 1999, I had already been witness to the gradual touristification of the city, the place having become one giant tourist spot, lodges, hotels, restaurants, and cafes sprouting here, there, and everywhere; the authentic Jaisalmer had already become submerged beneath the tourist veneer - and I anticipated the situation to have become even more acute eleven years later.

Last year, we arrived just before the monsoon, the tourist season yet to begin: the city was sluggish and sleepy and up inside the fort premises, which happens to be the oldest living fort in the world and for a long while, was what constituted Jaisalmer in itself, it was perhaps possible to get a glimpse of what life was like out there before the tourist encroachment began. Having wandered up there in the evening, men chatted amongst each other while boys played cricket in the quadrangle of space outside one of the many Jain temples inside the fort; inside the temple, the priest stood guard in pitch-darkness, watching a lamp's flame flicker in the little spurts of wind, power-cuts having beset the city again. Walking through the lanes crosswording the fort, I saw grandmothers and grand-daughters sitting cross-legged outside their homes, each generation gossiping amongst their friends. "Who would want to leave this place?" one of the girls, a college student, told me. "This is a world in itself: we are one big family over here and look out for each other." From the fort's ramparts, I surveyed the sea of roofs below, trying to imagine what the land had been like centuries before when Jaisalmer and the fort were synonymous with one another.

The following morning, we visited Lodarva Jain temple, which was situated upon the site of Jaisalmer's former capital, Lodarva; amid the curiously green-covered dunes (a beneficiary of the cyclone, Phet, which had coincidentally visited Oman in June before inexplicably changing course and swerving towards Gujarat and eventually, Rajasthan, where it spilled over into Jaisalmer) and ancient ruins, I heard the dawn wind whistling and keening through the temple, lifting up what was virtually a carpet of sand although the temple caretaker assiduously swept the floors every morning. This is what silence sounds like, I thought to myself, and it was pockets of loveliness such as these that helped me access an alternative Jaisalmer.

I particularly like this image of the wall because for me, it is representative of a Jaisalmer that I discovered beneath its customary glossy postcard prettiness of golden dunes and architecture and camels. In the corner, there is the tourist regalia waiting to be bought: the scarlet and mauve patchwork bedspreads, an omnipresent reminder that Jaisalmer is essentially a touristopolis, all said and done; one can also see the dainty Rajasthani jali [fret-work] detailing that has made Jaisalmer one of the most photographed cities of Rajasthan. Yet, whilst the Hindi script urging the populace to vote for a particular BJP candidate undoubtedly desecrates the fort wall, it is but yet another layer to the many layers that the fort wall has seen over the years and that is what gives the image a voice - the voice of a Jaisalmer, existing for itself, rather than an entity to be photographed and consumed and eventually, said goodbye to.

I have included a few more images from my Jaisalmer trip, tourist shots - and one that I particularly like of a man and woman having a conversation in the street. 

Patwa Haveli facade (and a pigeon!)

Balcony words
Lord Ganesha frescoes were commonly seen painted outside homes' entrance doors

**Edit: I would like to mention that I discovered a wonderful piece, Breathing Walls by Jenny Gustafsson, published in Mashallah News, which I will shortly be contributing to; the title of the piece is based upon a book of the same name, Breathing Walls, by Lebanese photographer, Rhea Karam, whom Jenny interviews - Karam's thoughts about walls in this interview very much encapsulate and reflect the intentions of my very own Wall Project. I am looking forward to reading the book at some point in the future...!

October 14, 2011

Fatehpur Sikri: City of Ghosts

There are some places which truly enchant you. When I use the word, 'enchant', I am referring to a process by which one becomes completely immersed in the place's atmosphere, beauty, and spirit, making it difficult to part ways from. For me, Fatehpur Sikri has been one of those places.

The first time I happened to discover the Mughal emperor, Akbar's abandoned  capital-city, Fatehpur Sikri was in the film, Pardes (1997), starring Shah Rukh Khan, Mahima Chaudhary, and Apurva Agnihotri. In the film, it is referred as to the 'kila' or the fort and as you can see in the clip below, it functions as a backdrop for a budding romance (save for the rather filmi bit shot in the studio at the end!):


After watching the film, Fatehpur Sikri somehow remained with me for a long time although I could not quite pinpoint what it was that so intrigued me about the place.

Upon further researching, I learnt that Akbar built Fatehpur Sikri 39 km from Agra  in 1570  as the new capital for the Mughal empire in honor of the Sufi saint, Salim Chisti; it was the first planned city of the Mughal Empire and entirely built in the Mughal architechural fashion. However, due to water shortages which were unable to sustain the population, it was abandoned a mere 14 years later and now remains a perfectly preserved ghost city, bearing witness to magnificent examples of hybrid Mughal architechure

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I spent a few weeks in Delhi for an artists' residency; during my time there, a couple of the resident artists made a plan to visit Taj Mahal one day and I decided to accompany them, more excited about the prospect of finally visiting Fatehpur Sikri, which had dominated my imagination for long, than the Taj Mahal. Indeed, upon reaching and wandering around Taj Mahal, I could not help but think that its beauty was too obvious, too expected, perhaps due to the virtue of  it being so recognisable. However, I must admit that I saw it by noon and Taj Mahal is a hydra-headed beauty, metamorphosing into different creatures at different times of the day. Perhaps, I may feel differently were I to see it during dawn or dusk or as my mother once had the opportunity to do so, by moonlight!

Fatehpur Sikri
We left Agra sometime after lunch and arrived at Fatehpur Sikri a couple of hours before dusk. I personally feel that it was the most beautiful time to visit the place for the dusk lent the place an extraordinary beauty that perhaps other times of the day could not do so; the roseate sandstone gleamed and glowed in the diminishing light and this nebulous junction between day and night suspended the place in another realm together. As I meandered through the arches, courtyards, passages, and rooms that I had long wished to encounter, I thought of ghost towns that I had visited in the United States. I was not sure whether 'ghost town' was an apt epithet for them for they did not appear to be haunt of ghosts even so dead and static did they seem. In Fatehpur Sikri, though, it struck me the place was not as much a fossil as a city simply waiting for all of us to leave to become alive again: a veritable city of ghosts, indeed.**

I also recollect that Jodha Akbar (2008), starring Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai, was being shot then and it was a curious intermingling of history, imagination, and cinematic anticipation as I peeped into the courtyard complex of Jodha-bai, reputedly Akbar's favorite queen.

Jodha-bai's courtyard complex

I could not visit the white marble filigree-screened tomb of Salim Chishti that day and while it was disappointing, I consoled myself with the thought that it only meant that I would have reason to return to Fatehpur Sikri to tie a sacred thread in the dargah and partake of a city ensnared in time....once again.

The tomb of Salim Chisti

Is there a place that has enchanted you and which you would like to keep continually returning to?

** Interestingly enough, Fatehpur Sikri features in the Hindi film, Lal Patthar (1971) where it plays an elemental role in the plot and has a ghost story attached to it; Lal Patthar, or Red Stones, is in reference to the red sandstone that Fatehpur Sikri is abstracted from

October 9, 2011

Blogging at Her Blueprint

Powerpuff Arabic

I am excited to share that I will now be blogging about contemporary women artists from the Middle East and the subcontinent on International Museum of Women's blog, Her Blueprint. The International Museum of Women is an online social museum documenting global changes, representative of how the digital twenty first century has impacted the way we preserve, document, curate, and disseminate knowledge.

Here is my first post on Corinne Martin, whom I had earlier blogged about over here.

If you are eager to see a particular artist covered on the blog, do let me know - I would love to learn more about them...

Image courtesy Corinne Martin

October 4, 2011

Omani Beaches: A Place Where There Was Nowhere Left to Go

"Remember that you and I made this journey, that we went together to a place where there was nowhere left to go."

Namesake (2003), Jhumpa Lahiri

Continuing to meditate along the lines of my last post, I recently visited Sifah beach about 25 km from Muscat. I had heard much about its white sand beach and that alone was enough to intrigue and compel me into visiting it. The ironical thing is that I have never ever been to a white sand beach or at least, not in my memory. I was born in Australia and my parents have plenty of photographs of a toddler me delightedly building sandcastles upon Brisbane's famous Gold Coast white sand beaches; yet, I sadly have no memories whatsoever of my Australia sojourn. For some reason, though, the notion of a sea of white fringing  all that blue strikes me as being incredibly beautiful and elevates it above a well, say, an ordinary dun-hued sand beach.

As it happened, we arrived just before sunset at Sifah, where the dying light had robbed the lustre from the seemingly white sand - and the rocky beach at low-tide was filled with an armada of marine creatures which would clearly have preferred to been beneath the veil of the sea: spiky black sea-urchins, star-fish, tiny fish, and a bronzed crab, both of us scuttling away from each other in mutual fright. I perhaps arrived at the wrong time of the day to properly appreciate the beach but the drive was fairly spectacular, cutting through  dusk-light drenched mountains and driving along roads overlooking mangrove-edged lagoons and dust-cloud filled gravel valleys transformed into makeshift football fields. Every now and then, we passed through villages, where dusk meant the inhabitants clustered around their homes and gossiped and we had to wait for herds of plump, long-haired goats to cross the road before finally moving ahead. Indeed at times,  inside the heart of the mountains and finally at the shore itself, it was difficult to believe that Muscat with its urban bustle and lights was mere kilometres away. 

Given that Oman has a 1500 km coastline, there are no dearth of beaches in Muscat and its immediate vicinity - and it is unimaginable for me to be away from the beach for too long. When I was a child, we would often drive up to Sawadi, which is located 85 km from Muscat, whose beach was lavishly littered with shells and I remember one of the best parts of the day after the frolicking and eating and playing was walking along the beach just before sunset, picking up shells. When we returned home, I was never inclined towards  looking up the shells and accordingly categorise them: I was quite happy that they simply functioned as souvenirs from a wonderful day at the beach.

Sometimes, there were other treasures to be gleaned from the beach, other than shells:

A feather, visual whispers...

Each beach has its own personality, which renders it distinct from the others. For me, my favorite beaches are those which are akin to an abandoned garden, empty, desolate, and peacefully existing as they must have done for many centuries: the ritual of low and high-tide, the subterranean world beneath the shore and the corresponding submarine one beneath the water, the almost invisible yet there marks of water enameling  the shore and the galaxy of sun-polished and water-shaped shells and rocks crowding the sand, like nature's bargain baskets. Yet, these days, the increasing presence of rubbish or the distant appearance of emerging hotel developments or the ominous rumble of beach bikes in the beaches  rudely encroaches upon and destroys the feeling of inviolability and serenity and temporary disconnect from the world. I find myself having to travel further and further away from Muscat to find that elusive beach, still unexplored and quietly slumbering away...where as you step on the shore, that dramatic convergence of land, water, and sky, you think you have nowhere else to go - and all that stretches ahead of you  - to contemplate, admire, and meditate upon - is the unending expanse of water. 

The light was too poor at Sifah to take pictures and do justice to the beach so I would like to share pictures from a new beach that I discovered a while back. 

Sunlight strewn beach...

Sky meeting sea and rocks

Mercurial waters...