November 3, 2015

Pinning Ancient and New Earrings: The Histories and Personal Stories of Objects

I have become a relentless pinner these days. I pin delectable recipes that I will never cook (ok, I lie, I have baked one version of a moist banana bread recipe I found there!) and fiercely calibrated outfits which I am never going to wear. I pin complex smoky eye tutorials although I still do not own a smoky-eye palette and DIY projects which I know are beyond the scope of my artistic and creative capabilities despite their helpful, hand-holdingly reassuring step by step photographs and instructions (it's a bit like seeing Nigella Lawson cook and no matter how much she charmingly conveys that her recipes are so easy-peasy to prepare, I feel that it's her culinary magic which is entirely responsible for transforming a mostly quotidian collection of ingredients into dishes that are midnight-fridge-raiding worthy and finger-lickingly good). But I nevertheless immensely enjoy it, this act of pinning. It's ultimately not so much about the pins as this admittance into a veritably magical, exciting visual universe, where you never quite know what gorgeous, strange planet or personality or plant you are going to discover. One day, I find this incredible installation artist recreating and freezing the sinuous curve of sea waves in glass. For some time, I virtually grew succulents after succulents in the little boxes on my moodboards. There are scores of hugely talented visual, design, jewelry, and book artists whom I am just learning about and from. I have even found a new preoccupation: collecting obscure words; did you know that I am a solivagant soul? And yesterday, I wrote a poem inspired by a wall-hanging called The Taste of Petrol and Porcelain.

Gold earrings, 2-3 BC,  Archaeology Museum, Istanbul
My method of pinning is a quick, efficient affair though; I usually immediately jump to another pin as soon as I have pinned one, not really choosing to linger. I don't know then what it was about these super-long, below the shoulder grazing gold earrings dating from 2-3 BC that made me pause longer than normal today. I suddenly and intuitively saw a woman with very long, very straight black hair wearing these earrings; in fact, I simply saw her wearing the earrings, I couldn't even see her face or any other features. She wore them during the day, her dress was snow-white and sleeveless. I wondered what occasion it was that warranted the donning of such gloriously extravagant, excessive jewelry; weren't her ears simply exhausted from cargoing all that weight around? The more I coaxed my imaginative faculties, the more vividly the scene came to life: the woman at a festival or a wedding or a celebration, the earrings reaching just below her bust-line, shearing through the crowds, the earrings simultaneously commanding attention yet discouraging too much intimacy, ordering a distance. I am in the middle of reading the massive tome, Memoirs of Cleopatra and perhaps the descriptions I have encountered there of her magnificent costumes and jewelry may have influenced my imaginings of this particular woman and her history. However, whatever the reasons, the earrings had firmly taken root in my mind. 

When I was a child, I wanted to grow up to be an astronaut and an archaeologist; apart from their spellings being coincidentally identically bookended, perhaps the two occupations were not so radically dissimilar. Becoming an astronaut necessitated you to explore the outer space, a vast, mysterious realm, which was still largely unknown, only beginning to become knowable, populated with planets, galaxies, and even extra-terrestial beings, both whose existence and finer details we were just starting to learn of and comprehend. As for archaeology, was the very distant past too not akin to outer-space? The stars we see in the sky are long dead, their twinkling only deceiving us into thinking that they still live; similarly, the still existing structures and objects that we encounter of those long extinguished civilisations remind us at once that they both flourished - and yet are no more. The earliest human civilisations are as tantalisingly mysterious as the furthermost edges of outer-space: there is only so much we can imagine after a certain point after all in absence of data and empirical information and tangible objects, literature, art, and language.

However, whenever I saw myself as an archaeologist during my childhood, I was at a site, surrounded by layers of soil, unearthing an object - and placing it against my ear and asking it to speak its story, as if it was a conch-shell telling me how the sea sounded when it pounded against the beach.** When I was ten years old, my family and I had visited the ancient city of Qalhat near Sur in Oman; we had stood in the dusk shadows of the domeless mausoleum of Bibi Maryam, thousands and thousands of ceramic pottery shards littering the stony ground around us. I recollected picking up one of the shards, the glaze still glossy and vivid - and trying, trying very hard to visualise it as an entire pot. I couldn't: I never have been particularly skilled at seeing the bigger picture. 

My preoccupation with intuiting, imagining, and coaxing stories from objects has remained till this date though. I see objects transcending mere functionality into becoming signifiers, signs, and Russian dolls of memories and stories. I am currently working on a short story collection which revolves around a chest of objects dispersed across the world from a haveli in Rajasthan, each object becoming an alternative story and narrating new ones in its new homes. I am still working on my personal text-photography project, Object Stories, where I assemble story-portraits from an individual's specific collection of much loved objects. And I delightedly chanced upon Aanchal Malhotra's project, Remnants of a Separation, in which she uses precious objects that were brought over during Partition as alternate mode of narrating the stories of that climatic historical event.

Minutes after I had pinned the ancient golden earrings, I saw these contemporary statement earrings in gold and cobalt blue. They made me think of similar ones I had received as a 22nd birthday present and which I decided to wear at a birthday dinner with close friends. In those days, I normally did not wear such conspicuously statement earrings; I preferred to over-dress my wrists or neck, rather than my fingers or ears (as I am inclined to do now) - and I hesitated before eventually putting them on, telling myself that it was my birthday dinner, after all, and I could surely cope with the attention the earrings would presumably attract. On the bus en route to the restaurant, I met an acquaintance from my college and as we made requisite small talk, I noticed him closely observing my earrings, making me feel self-conscious. "Nice earrings!" I still recall him saying as he got off at his stop. I don't think I ever wore those earrings again but they are still sitting somewhere in one of my jewelry boxes - and whenever I come across them, I am reminded of that birthday dinner many years ago.

Will someone find those earrings years later and wonder about their story? That's for future to contemplate and decide. For the present, though, I will continue to ponder about the woman who wore those ancient golden earrings, where, why, when...

 ** I highly recommend Kamila Shamsie's novel, A God In Every Stone, which recounts among st other stories the tale of a London archaeologist and so took me back to my childhood yearnings to be an archaeologist