Is All Fair and Lovely?

The best part about family gatherings is walking into a room mid-conversation and being privy to some gossip. Salacious subject-matter may include an aunt’s poor cooking skills, the financial woes troubling a distant relative and the minutiae of a conflict between cousins. Of course there would be times where you wish you hadn’t walked in. Once I’d chanced upon a discussion between aunts claiming they’d known their niece would grow up to be dark-skinned because, as a baby, her ears were swarthier than the rest of her body. The dialogue was shrouded with insidiousness and spite; denigrating her beauty due to her skin tone.

In spite of the racism faced by the South Asian community, there is a pervasive undercurrent of colourism and a self-hatred which stems from it. Whenever I’d visit Bangladesh, I would be bombarded with rose-hued billboards advertising Fair and Lovely, a skin lightening cream. The message, delivered with a model’s pearly smile, was clear; you’ll be more beautiful if you’re a shade lighter, or implicitly, you cannot be comfortable with your skin colour. Of course, seeing the blotched faces of those who bleached their skin was all the more distressing. As an ethnic minority living in Europe, this ostensible link between beauty and fairness privileged me with several insecurities. Ultimately, it played its part in fuelling a wider web of incessant despondency.

Beautifully translated by Elias Muanna, the ‘Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition’ is an encyclopaedia compiled by Mamluk-era historian Shihāb al-Dīn Ahmad bin ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Nuwayri. The book provides a medieval Egyptian’s insight into formulating love potions, reasons for not speaking louder than others (even if you have a desperately profound statement to make) and the unconscionable habits of hyenas around human corpses.

Nestled between such morsels of wisdom are poems devoted to beauty and I happened across two pieces which provide a pleasant remedy to colourism:

How can I not desire a gazelle

Grazing freely in the protection of a king

Its duskiness a mix

Of camphor and musk[1]

This poem, however, is my personal favourite:

O you who spends his wealth

Upon the love of this fine gold-skinned one

How can silent gold, spent profligately

Compare to gold that speaks?[2]

To those of you with at least an atom’s worth of self-doubt about your skin colour – I’d like to wholeheartedly assure you that I am, and as are you, the gold that speaks.


References

Featured image: Louise Catherine Breslau – La Toilette (1898)

[1] Al-Nuwayri, Shihab al-Din. The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition: A Compendium of Knowledge from the Classical Islamic World. Penguin, 2016. p.57.

[2] Ibid.

Beauty in the Eyes of a Medieval Beholder

Take a visit to a trinket shop in India’s touristic Golden Triangle and you may be met with replicas and reimaginations of Persian miniature paintings hanging alongside the obligatory fridge magnets. Although miniatures were prevalent prior to Mughal rule, the Persian style was introduced during the sixteenth century when much of the subcontinent was part of a wider Persianate world. The miniatures were no larger than an average book cover but they packed an inordinate amount of detail. These included renderings of courtly rituals, royal forest hunts and even a Russian ambassador featured in an illustration by Muḥammadī.

So, how does one scrutinise a Persian miniature in order to make certain we are getting a quality product from the tout? Fortunately we have a 15th century Timurid prince and art critic Mirza Muhammad Haidar Dughlat to give the modern day reader some pointers.  

Muḥammadī, ‘Portrait of a Russian Ambassador’, Topkapi Palace Museum

The painting’s overall design, or ṭarḥ should embody muḥkam, interpreted by Eric Schroeder to be “tight, immovably fast and strong, like the ropes of a well-pitched tent, or a stable building”.[1] The brush strokes must be khunuk, firm, which somehow must complement the much desired attribute of nāzukī, a balmy softness. Importantly, the painting would be judged on the merit of ṣaf, a clarity or cleanliness.

Paintings with the properties of durusht, a coarseness resulting from larger brush strokes, were much disapproved by the art critic. This criticism was lodged by Dughlat against Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād, an artist renowned for his miniatures in the Timurid and Safavid courts of Iran.[2] Judging from Dughlat’s commentaries, we can surmise that the thick impasto techniques found in Van Gogh’s works may not have received commendation either.   


References

Featured image: “Dancing Dervishes”, attributed to Behzād, The Metropolitan Museum of Arts


[1] Robinson, B. W. “Muḥammadī and the Khurāsān Style.” Iran 30, no. 1 (1992): 17-29.

[2] Arnold, T. W. “Mīrzā Muḥammad Ḥaydar Dughlāt on the Harāt School of Painters.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, London Institution (1930): 671-674.

Tracing Scythia’s Griffins

As a child I’d spend weekends watching and re-watching VHS cassettes of classic monster films. Fast-forwarding through the adverts, which had also annoyingly been recorded, I’d eagerly anticipate the final act of the Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973). Having fought his way through an unknown world, the eponymous hero witnesses a spellbinding stop-motion clash between a formidable one-eyed centaur and a copper-hued griffin. After recently reading about the nomadic Scythians of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, it was a serendipitous discovery to observe a griffin in combat, this time within the medium of jewellery.

Symmetrical and intricately woven, the crescent-shaped golden pectoral of Tovsta Mohlya from southern Ukraine provides a snapshot of Scythian life and folklore. It dates from the fourth century B.C. and was discovered by Soviet archaeologists in a kurgan, a Scythian burial mound, along with the graves of servants and horses nearby.[1]

Measuring roughly thirty centimetres in diameter, the pectoral consists of three detailed panels. The top panel portrays Scythian daily life, including two figures fashioning clothing out of sheepskin. The middle panel features pastoral scenes of birds, spiralling vines and conch-like flowers. It is the lower frieze which holds one’s attention. Here, fears about predators are interwoven with magic. Lions feast on boars, yet the eye is drawn to the centre where winged griffins dismember a horse.

Pectoral, Historical Treasures Museum, Kyiv

The predator-prey dichotomy features heavily in Scythian artwork, reflecting the harsh existence the nomads would have faced.[2] What was truly fascinating was that a near identical motif, dating roughly from the same century, was found in a terracotta fragment in southern Italy some 2½ thousand kilometres away from the kurgan. Likewise, the Olynthus mosaic of Northern Greece, also dating from the same time period, shows a similar scene. [3] What could have accounted for these identical artistic themes separated by such a huge geographical distance?

Applique Fragment, 350-300 B.C., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu California. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

The answer to this may lie in trade. Griffins originate in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia where they appear in artistic depictions as early as 3000 B.C.[4] Below one can observe such art from the region, although dated some 2,500 years after the motif’s original introduction. The Phoenician scarab, likely used as a seal, depicts the Egyptian God Bes locked in a struggle with our mythical creature.

A stamp impression of an engraved scarab with Bes Fighting a Griffin, 500 B.C., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu California. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

Ann Farkas suggests the griffin-in-combat motif may have been transferred to Scythia via the ancient textiles trade from the Near East.[5] For instance, a rug portraying stags and griffins was found in a Scythian burial site in Pazyryk in southern Siberia. Farkas theorised that the rug would have been gifted or traded by Persia or nearby polities. Similarly, it is possible that Persian textiles featuring griffin motifs may have been exported to Greece and across the Mediterranean to southern Italy. From Greece, Hellenic traders and artisans may have transported the featured motifs to the northern shores of the Black Sea, where it would have caught the eye of local Scythians.[6]

What has been described is the proliferation of an ancient artistic trend, not dissimilar to the trends we see in our globalised world. The Scythian reception and indigenisation of the griffin demonstrates that even ancient nomads did not exist in total cultural isolation.


References

[1] Piotrovsky, Boris. “Excavations and Discoveries in Scythian Lands.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 32, no. 5 (1973): 31.

[2] Cunliffe, Barry. The Scythians: Nomad Warriors of the Steppe. Oxford University Press, 2019. 283.

[3] Farkas, Ann. “Interpreting Scythian Art: East vs. West.” Artibus Asiae 39, no. 2 (1977): 128.

[4] Mayor, Adrienne, and Michael Heaney. “Griffins and Arimaspeans.” Folklore 104, no. 1-2 (1993): 41.

[5] Farkas, Ann. “Interpreting Scythian Art: East vs. West.” Artibus Asiae 39, no. 2 (1977): 128.

[6] Ibid.,128.

Scroll Readers and Tiger Tamers

There is a cacophony of excitement as villagers gather under a banyan tree. Patua, or travelling minstrels, have called for the village’s undivided attention, hoping to both entertain and illuminate the audience with their scrolls. Carefully manipulating the bamboo handles of the scroll, the Patua progressively reveal elaborate scenes of a tale; making literal the term ‘the story unfolds’.

Often sung, this rural performance art, known as Pattachitra, is native to Bengal and Odisha. In the 19th century, the scrolls would include scenes from the Ramayana or depictions of the travails of local saints. Modern iterations have provided socio-political commentary such as Indira Gandhi’s restriction of civil liberties during The Emergency (1975-1977) and Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence movement.[1] One traditional narration, found in the Gazi Scroll, dating from the 1800s, is now tucked away in the British Museum. The focal point of this artwork is the portrayal of the Sufi mystic Gazi pir who wields a serpent as a staff and rides a frightening tiger as his steed. Measuring thirteen metres in length, it represents the enormous historical transformation of the Bengal delta from centuries prior.

A scene from the Gazi Scroll, British Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Mughals, having conquered the Bengal Sultanate had acquired a province of which the eastern half comprised a thick, inhospitable jungle. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth century, the imperial administration sought to colonise this giant stretch of forest.[2] Local holy men, known as pirs, provided much initiative, encouraging their followers to act as pioneers by chopping the forest and building new settlements. With it came accounts of the pirs’ supposed magical abilities, including taming the fearsome crocodiles and tigers who threatened these nascent communities. As late as 1898, a British officer noted of pirs operating in Bengal’s jungles;

As these animals seldom attack man in this district, the Pir is generally allowed by persons of both religions to have restrained the natural ferocity of the beast, or, as it is more usually said, has given the tiger no order to kill man.[3]

Patua storytelling is fluid as is the case with many oral traditions. Depending on the performer’s mood or audience, the delivery may change ever so slightly, although a general outline would be fixed by the scroll’s illustrations. While the exact narration the scroll’s painter had imagined may not be retrievable, the Gazi Scroll serves to remind its audience of a past sprinkled with heroes and fiends. Central to this account are human agents and their capacity to transform uninhabitable maneater infested swampland into the verdant paddy fields we see in Bengal today.  


References

Featured image: Jagannatha, Balabhadra, and Subhadra in the Jagganatha Temple (1875-1900), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

[1] Ghosh, Pika. “Unrolling a narrative scroll: Artistic practice and identity in late-nineteenth-century Bengal.” The Journal of Asian Studies 62, no. 3 (2003): 835-871.

[2] Eaton, Richard Maxwell, and Richard M. Eaton. The rise of Islam and the Bengal frontier, 1204-1760. Vol. 17. Univ of California Press, 1993.

[3] Ibid., 209.