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« Pakistan: Failed state or Weimar Republic? Omar Ali | Main | Mob Attack in Mazar Sharif »

March 30, 2011


Thanks Norman, for your candid and evolving views of India in particular and south and east Asia in general.

We are all victims of over-generalization and many other vast and diverse regions of the world come up for a "one-size-fits-all" view in the eyes of the transient and uninitiated observer. India is particularly prone to this because despite its amazing diversity, the images purveyed to the world that are cemented in the minds of onlookers seem to reflect an undifferentiated perspective which upon closer inspection, do not stand up to the preconceived notion. But really, who has the time to inspect the complexities when the tiger, the Taj Mahal and the holy men all seem to blend nicely in a backdrop of a brown skinned throng? I can understand foreigners making the mistake. It is a bit more unforgivable when Indians themselves flog the same cultural kitsch. Bollywood is a major culprit. India is best studied in small pieces. The tiles are all distinct but from a distance, they do build up to a pretty and colorful mosaic that is photogenic, sensationalistic and sometimes, misleading.

Norman, regarding misconceptions - The title of your last photo 'Kerala_spices' which shows up in the mouse-over, is almost certainly incorrect. It appears to be a stall selling powdered colors for Holi, not spices,kumkum, incense sticks etc. Holi is not celebrated in Kerala (except for assorted college campuses with its share of North Indian students), and such a stall wouldn't really work in a state where cleanliness and white linens, in particular, are highly valued :-)

( I can see where the confusion arises with the source of the photo, but David Garhouse has photos on his Picasa album of which the verdant ones with elephants - another favorite stereotype- are the ones from Kerala.)

I love the irony of our discussion regarding simplistic impressions and purveyed imagery, while we perpetuate some of the very things that we bemoan!

It's interesting to see how the image of India has changed in Western eyes over the past several decades.

Sujata, I have seen stalls like this in South India, carrying bowls of multi-colored powders. They appear year-round. I'm not sure, but I think the colors are used for making rangolis.

Usha, it could very well be rangoli powder, as you mentioned. I'm not convinced that it is Kerala, however. Rangoli (with powders) isn't that much in vogue in Kerala, so it's more likely that the stalls you are talking about in S. India are in Tamil Nadu or Karnataka.

Usha, Sujatha, Ruchira,

Not knowing anything about Rangoli, I did a Google search. I thought I would find food (there are a couple Indian restaurants named Rangoli.) Realizing it was an art form, I clicked on Google images. It took me about 3 seconds to conclude, Ah Ha! That's where some of Ruchira's inspiration comes from for her art and beautiful colors (especially cobalt blue.) One image immediately evoked the thought of Ruchira's art style - at least for a few pieces I saw. You can find it at:

Another thing to notice is the swastika on that painting. Many years ago I happened across a book published around 1910, by Rudyard Kipling. I do not remember the title, but I remember the swastika on bottom of the title page. A little research and I found that the swastika was an ancient India symbol and had two forms, one for good and the other for bad. The Kipling swastika was the symbol for good, and the form the Nazis used was the symbol for bad. The Nazi swastika starts at the top left and proceeds horizontally to the right. The other form starts in the top left, and proceeds straight down.

I have no idea how the swastika came to be adopted by the Nazis, or if they knew it was an Indian symbol. Recently, I read that some Indians want to resurrect the revered symbol, now that there is some passage of time since WW2 and the holocaust.

Norman, here is more confusion about India for you. I grew up in a Bengali household. The "Rangoli" (which roughly means colorful display) among Bengalis is a completely "white" affair called "alpana". Look at the designs in the link and visualize them in white with an occasional vermillion spot or a swastika to indicate an auspicious occasion. Made with a paste of rice powder, it looks like a chalk drawing. My mother was an expert and I learnt from her enough to dabble in the art. So no, my sense of color was not inspired by rangoli per se, but by India itself. Colors are everywhere. But thanks for the kind words about my art work.

Indian Hindus don't need to resurrect the swastika because they never abandoned it. Hitler's evil designs in co-opting the revered design had no effect on Hindus. They continued and continue to use it as a symbol of the holy. The explanation of Hitler's reason for adopting the swastika are varied. But the most convincing is that it is an ancient Aryan symbol which is why it found favor with the Aryan Nation of the Third Reich. The irony of course is that that at the time the blond hair and blue eyes worshipping Nazis made it their own, only brown skinned Indians were in the habit of using the symbol.

Usha, whose comment appears above, had once written an article about the Swastika - its differing significance in the east and the west. Perhaps she will provide a link for your benefit.

If I may add to the confusion, rangoli is a North Indian import to the South :-) I grew up learning how to make a white powder based daily pattern called 'kolam', which was done with a paste of rice flour and water for longer durability on festive occasions. The daily kolam, at the front steps of the house were not too elaborate, took about 5 minutes to execute, and were easily swept away and renewed the next morning. Rangoli is more elaborate and colorful, of course, but used primarily for festive occasions, but my preference is for the kind of patterns that come from the flow of lines around a frame of dots that form the basis of the classic kolams.,ic:gray&source=lnt&sa=X&ei=U62VTee2N4OC0QG2w4X-Cw&ved=0CBUQpwUoAg

I am sure I said this before, but one of the great delights of posting on Accidental Blogger is the Accidental education in culture, history, art, food, people, and literature of many places. All I have to do it tell what I know, or what I find interesting, and an exciting elaboration follows from personal experience.

Great article, Norman. Will read your blog more regularly. Peace.

@ Brad: Thank you.

Thank you, Norman. A couple of years ago I tried to gather a group to go to Kerala with Karen Peters, who knows almost everyone there (kidding only sort of). The economy was too scary. I've always wanted to go. Read Ruchira's post on it, you'll want to go even more. I want to combine it with Goa, some December when I'm feeling expansive. In my teens, I did a research project on Jaipur -- town planning. My friend Dennis, who translates sacred texts, spends every summer traveling in India to all the monasteries in the Tibetan diaspora, teaching translation skills to the monks -- he says I could follow him around! His photos make me want to do it.

Great post, interesting to read, keep sharing more and more...

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