Saturday, December 31, 2016

Happy New Year 2017

Wish you a very happy and prosperous New Year!

Hip hip hooray! Artists celebrating at Skagen by P.S. Krøyer

Photo: Hip hip hooray! Artists celebrating at Skagen (1888) oil on canvas painting by Peder Severin Krøyer, 134.5 × 165.5 cm (53 × 65.2 in), Gothenburg Museum of Art (Göteborgs konstmuseum), Sweden

The image above depicts the artists living and working in Skagen, Denmark, gathering in a garden for a celebration. The persons in the painting are (L-R) Martha Johansen, painter Viggo Johansen, Norwegian painter, writer and journalist Christian Krohg, Peder Severin Krøyer (P.S. Krøyer), Degn Brøndum (Anna Ancher's brother), Michael Ancher, Swedish painter Oscar Björck, Danish painter Thorvald Niss, teacher Helene Christensen, Danish painter Anna Ancher and Helga Ancher.

The Norwegian-Danish painter P.S. Krøyer (1851-1909) is one of the most celebrated of the Skagen Painters, a community of Danish and Nordic artists who had been working in Skagen, Denmark in the final decades of the 1800s.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Ancient Archaeological Site in Palmyra, Syria

Photo: View of ancient archaeological site in Palmyra in October 2007

The Palmyra saga is at least 7500 years old. The earliest documented name Tadmor was in use from about 2000 BC. Then the present name Palmyra appeared in the first century AD in the works of Pliny the Elder, and became popular in Greco-Roman world.

Both the names are related to palm trees which were plenty in the area, at least twenty varieties of them. Some of them are still visible as the site is nested in an oasis overlooked by mountain ranges in the Syrian Desert.

Since 2011 when the Syrian Civil War began, the area became the target of many opposing forces. As a result, this UNESCO World Heritage Site experienced large scale fighting, looting of artifacts and wanton destruction.

In the early days of the civil war, the Syrian Army men took positions among and atop the archeological structures to shoot at the Syrian rebels positioned at various locations around the city. Later, as the advancing Islamic State fighters took control of the town of Tadmur in May 2015, the government transported the artifacts from the Palmyra museum to Damascus.

The Islamic State forces entered Palmyra on 21 May 2015 defeating Syrian Army, and the Syrian Air Force bombed the site on 13 June damaging some ancient structures. During their occupation, the Islamic State used the Roman Theatre at Palmyra to stage public executions continuously since 27 May 2015.

The Syrian Army, supported by airstrikes provided by the Russian air force retook Palmyra on 27 March 2016. Apart from large scale destruction by the Islamist forces, the fighting also destroyed many structures.

However, all is not lost yet, as numerous historical structures are still unaffected.

Reportedly the Islamic State is fast losing many of its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, especially as they face elimination from their strongholds such as Mosul and Raqqah. It seems they are now in another attempt to spread out and expand. Maybe, as a part of that they recaptured Palmyra from the Syrian government forces on 11 December 2016.

And now the news reports say the government forces are preparing to fight the Islamist forces occupying Palmyra - the photo that you see here is of 2007, much before the reported destruction.

A good number of ancient monuments of Palmyra were bombarded and reduced to rubbles. How many more structures will be bombed and mortared? How many more lives will be lost? Only the coming days can tell.

Interestingly, after May 2015, a lot Greco-Roman busts and other artifacts including jewelry looted from the Palmyra museum appeared for sale in international markets.

Kristen Stewart at the 82nd Academy Awards

Photo: Kristen Stewart of Twilight Saga fame at 82nd Academy Awards in Hollywood on 7 March 2010, photo by Sgt. Michael Connors, U.S. Army

American actress Kristen Stewart (born April 9, 1990), though was in several films since she started acting in 1999, received much attention and appreciation for her performance in “Panic Room” in 2002. It was followed by creditable performances in several films before she became an international craze with her performance as Bella Swan in The Twilight Saga series.

Stewart has also acted in a number of successful films other than the Twilight franchise and has won many coveted awards. Vanity Fair listed her as the highest-earning actress in the Hollywood Top Earners List of 2010. She also appeared in Forbes' List of Hollywood's Best Actors for the Buck in 2011, and Forbes also named her the highest paid actress in 2012.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Afghan Refugee Girl

Photo: Afghan refugee girl waiting for clothing and school supplies

This is a photo of an Afghan refugee girl taken on 10 April 2012 in Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan. She was one of the 400 refugee children who were waiting to receive clothing and school supplies being made available by international donors in association with Aschiana School in Kabul, run by one of the country’s well respected NGO.

According to the United Nations, about 35,000 internally displaced persons live in camps in Kabul as of 2015, with only tents and mud huts as their homes. Winters are very harsh, given the living conditions and standard of living in the country, though geographically being mountainous, Kabul winter is described as mild. But last year, January witnessed the harshest winter in two decades with night temperatures plummeting below 20 degrees.

Kabul occasionally is hit by heavy snowstorms that worsen the plight of the camp-dwellers, with the porous walls and roof letting in cold winds and moisture and the un-cemented mud floors getting wet.

The children are the worst sufferers, who already suffer because of lack of proper schools, healthcare, food shortages and all kinds of shortages that can be associated with depravity.

The death rate of children in these camps is the highest, much more than the figure for the country, which has one of the worst statistics in the world in this regard. With another January round the corner, it is time for the governments, NGOs and even the able among Afghan IDPs to plan and get prepared for facing the winter hardships.

Want to help Afghan children?

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Skomorokhs in a Russian Village: Franz Nikolaevich Riss

Photo: Skomorokhs in a Russian Village (1857), painting by Franz Nikolaevich Riss

The painting by Francois Nicholas Riss (1804-1886), often referred to as Franz Nikolaevich Riss, depicts Skomorokhs performing in a Russian village street. It is a typical Russian village setting of the times with wooden and thatched roof houses, and the village folks of all age groups, from very young children to old men and women gathering to enjoy the show.

Born in Russia, Franz Nikolaevich Riss studied painting in Paris at Baron Antoine-Jean Gros and mainly painted portraits, including the famous portrait of Jacques Cartier, the discoverer of Canada. In 1930s he returned to Russia and settled in Saint Petersburg.

The Skomorokhs were East Slavic street performers who were active in medieval times in Russia and many other Slavic nations. Their origin is documented to the 11th century, becoming very popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. They had to face severe persecution from the orthodoxy, especially from the Russian Orthodox Church, and they had to disappear from the scene by the 18th century.

In fact, many of the folk traditions of many eastern regions from Central Asia to the Indian subcontinent have influences of these folk performers. For instance, the evolution of the Russian puppet theatre drew directly the Skomorokhs.

As their repertoire included singing, dancing, playing musical instruments and composing and choreographing for their performances, they could draw crowds of hundreds that is remarkable for the era that had no advertising and marketing for such shows. Neither was there the electronic media of today’s times nor the elaborate stage settings to attract people.

The Skomorokhs were feared as the devil’s servants by the Orthodox Church that also discouraged folk art and popular culture which were considered irreverent and repelling people from God. As the rulers were either strongly influenced by the church or rather the rulers were ruled by the church, banning their shows was easy. A case in point is the ban order issued by Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich in 1657, which was influenced by the church.

The feudalists and the clergy were dead against Skomorokhi as their art occasionally included satire, masks and mock songs that were popular among the common people. These could be used against the elite that seem to be the refrain of the church that wanted to propagate ascetic living.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Cote d'Azur Beach where elite Syrians go partying

Photo: The picturesque Cote d'Azur Beach in Syria’s Mediterranean coast.

The Cote d'Azur Beach (the Blue Beach), Syria's premier coastal resort on the Mediterranean coast, is adjacent to Ras Ibn Hani, an archaeological site, just eight kilometers north of Latakia city, the provincial capital and the heartland of President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite sect.

The entire area, including the beach used to be a busy tourist destination with some good hotels and holiday apartments that used to attract a good number of international tourists. But now the beach is a favorite location for only elite Syrian families and foreign soldiers stationed in Syria.

The bloody conflicts started in March 2011, as part of the Arab Spring which kick-started civil wars in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and in some other areas of the region.

When the protests started, the Syrian government deployed military to control rebels, and arrested hundreds of protesters. Several people allegedly died in clashes with the government forces. The area has a large presence of people of the Alawite sect, the sect of the incumbent President, Bashar al-Assad.

Russia has established a large electronic eavesdropping facility in Latakia, and the Khmeimim Air Base near Latakia has been made the main base of the Russian military in 2015. So, Latakia enjoys a special place in the government’s plans and actions and has been mostly less affected by the brutal war that has crippled the rest of the country.

As of 2016, the local people continue life as usual, in contrast to the death and destruction in rest of the country. While life here is still a beach party, the majority of Syrians are facing food shortage, starvation, terrorism and frequent airstrikes.

The Assad regime has a support base in the city's elite, and most of the regime forces are Alawite soldiers. For them the government had ensured enough wealth and comforts. Additionally, several thousand Russian soldiers based at Hmeimim Air Base also need entertainment and other perks for which they head to Latakia.

It’s Christmas, and sure there will be celebrations here, while majority of Syrians may be starving. There were reports of children eating grass and garbage to fight hunger.

Sultan Bayezid in the Captivity of Tamerlane by Stanislaw Chlebowski

Photo: Sultan Bayezid in Captivity of Timur (1878) by Stanislaw Chlebowski, oil on canvas painting, 70 × 112 cm, Lviv National Art Gallery, Ukraine

In this painting, often titled as “Bayezid I Held Captive by Timur”, the Polish painter Stanislaw Chlebowski (1835-84) depicts two of the most dreaded conquerors of his times.

The painting, the title of which is variously translated also as “Sultan Bayezid Prisoned by Timur”, or “Bayezid I At The Hands Of Timur”, depicts Timur (also known as Tamerlane and or Timur the Lame) as the figure standing in the fore, wearing a kimono-styled mongoloid tunic. As he is lame*, he is supporting himself with a cane. Bayazid is the declining old man with downcast eyes and apparently suffering from a bout of depression.

Bayezid I (1360-1403), the Ottoman Sultan from 1389 to 1402, had the reputation of having one of the largest and best armies in the Islamic world. He had leaded many military campaigns and unsuccessfully besieged Constantinople.

The Battle of Ankara, fought on 20 July 1402, ended in a major victory for Timur, and it marked the worst crisis for the Ottoman Empire, though it gradually recovered and flourished for two more centuries. But it was the beginning of the end of the Timurid Empire that disintegrated following Tamerlane's death on 18 February 1405.

In 1402, Bayezid was trying to conquer Hungary, when Timur found it the right opportunity to invade the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan rushed back to confront the Timurids, who were slaughtering people and plundering cities and towns on their way. The Sultan withdrew his forces from the siege of Constantinople and deployed them against the Timurids.

By the time, the brother-in-law and a vassal of the Sultan, the Serbian prince Stefan Lazarević and his forces, along with the Wallachia forces, were already fighting off the invaders. Bayezid joined forces with Lazarević who advised him to break out with him, but the sultan declined. Eventually, Taimur defeated the Ottoman forces and took the sultan prisoner on 20 July 1402.

Along with the sultan, one of his wives, Despina Hatun (Mileva Olivera Lazarević, the younger sister of Stefan Lazarevic) and one of the sultan’s sons Mustafa Celebi were also captured by Timur. Olivera was freed after the death of the sultan in captivity in March 1403. But Mustafa Celebi was held prisoner in Samarkand until 1405.

The battle is of special significance in Ottoman Empire’s history as it is the only time a ruling Sultan was captured and made prisoner. The battle also fractured the empire and ignited a civil war among Bayezid's sons for power, which continued for 11 years.

Some historians estimate that both the armies together had nearly one million soldiers, though claims regarding the exact strengths widely vary. It has been claimed that over 50,000 Turks were killed in a few hours of the war.

Earlier, Timur massacred over 100,000 people (various estimates put the figure between 100,000 and 200,000) in the city of Delhi, after a battle on 17 December 1398 in which he defeated the army of Sultan Nasir-ud-Din Mahmud Shah Tughluq who ruled the Sultanate of Delhi. According to historians, Timur’s invasions caused the deaths of 17 million people, about 5% of the world population of the time.

Timur continued to expand his empire until his death. After three months of battles against the Ming Dynasty of China, Timur died of fever on 18 February 1405.

Soon after Timur's death, his empire fell apart. But Shahrukh Mirza, the youngest son of Timur from one of his concubines, ruled the eastern region of the fractured empire, ruling from Herat in Afghanistan. After a string of weak rulers, the Timur dynasty’s rule ended in 1507.

Tamerlane’s descendents include Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire, and the Timurid ruler Ulugh Beg.

* In 1363, it is believed, Timur tried to steal a sheep when a shepherd shot two arrows, injuring his right leg and right hand where he lost two fingers. These injuries crippled him for life, and earned him the names Timur the Lame and Tamerlane.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Jean-Leon Gerome: Consummatum est

Photo: Oil on canvas painting titled Jerusalem or Consummatum est (1867) by Jean-Leon Gerome, 82 cm × 144.5 cm (32 in × 56.9 in), currently at Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Jerusalem, also called Golgotha, Consumatum Est or The Crucifixion (La Crucifixion), dated 1867, is an oil painting by the French sculptor and painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). When it was first exhibited at the Salon of 1868, the spectators were confused, and it attracted negative reviews because of the unconventional technique or unusual way he chose to depict the subject.

Gerome was one of the best among scholastic lot of the artistic circles of his time, well-travelled, and was ahead of his times in depicting artistic subjects.

The actual scene of the crucifixion is not there in the picture, but there is more than that. As an immediate answer to what most of the people returning to their homes are looking at and pointing to, including the soldiers, there is the shadow of three men on the foreground, Mount Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified positioning him between two thieves. In the background is the city of Jerusalem under a clouded sky, where the crowd of people is returning to.

The painting Consumatum Est marked Gerome’s return to history painting after he travelled much through some of the countries of the Middle East and North Africa and explored Orientalism. His travels and works of the period gave the actual pictures to the art world which used to depict what was traditionally and academically shown rather than what was real. For instance, his depiction of the real lives of the people of the Muslim countries he travelled, can be seen several of his works.

The choice of the title too is out of the ordinary, as Consummatum est refers to Christ's last words (John 19:30), “It is completed”, or “It is all over”.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Indian Peacock in Flight

Photo: The Indian Peacock captured on lens during flight

The Indian Peafowl, Pavo cristatus, is perhaps the only bird with such a long train of feathers with vibrant iridescent colors. Often mistaken for tail feathers, this long train is actually made up of around 200 upper tail coverts, growing above the usual tail feathers. While both peahens and peacocks have tail feathers, peahens do not have the trains. The train feathers have multicolor eyespots.

The iridescent feather colors are not due to color pigments, but they are resulting from optical interference reflections of nanostructures of the fiber-like components of feathers. The peacock raises its train feathers, spreads them like an elaborate evenly spread fan and quivers it, and performs what is commonly known as ‘the peacock dance’ during courtship.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Artemisia Gentileschi: Suffer the little children to come unto me

Photo: Suffer the little children to come unto me (1624-25), oil on canvas painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, 134.6 cm x 97.7 cm, currently at San Carlo al Corso, Rome

The images of this painting are sometimes titled ‘Sinite Parvulos’, which refers to "Sinite parvulos venire ad me", citing Jesus from the Gospel (Mk 10: 14): “When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’”

But this painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, historically titled ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me’ (or ‘Christ blessing the children’) was untraceable for some time, and was also believed to be lost. And some art historians had wrongly attributed the work to some other artists.

The painting was originally listed in the worldly possessions of Fernando Enriquez Afán de Ribera, the 3rd Duke of Alcalà, who also is believed to be its first owner. In 1898, it was in the collection of the Duke of Sutherland. In July 1913, it was put on sale at Christie’s in London. And in 1927, it was in the collection of E. Boross at Larchmont, New York, from whom it was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in the same year.

On 30 May 1979, the Metropolitan Museum sent it for sale to Sotheby’s New York, wrongly attributing the authorship to the Italian Painter Carlo Rosa (1613-1678). After that and notably by 2001 the whereabouts of the painting became unknown.

However, it was rediscovered in the collection of San Carlo al Corso. Comparison of the known photographs of the painting with the 1979 Sotheby’s catalogue show the painting in the church is the same work, but with slight changes caused due to restoration, probably carried out after the sale in 1979.

At the area, close to the bottom edge, where restoration was done, something like the woolly back of a lamb is now visible which was not there earlier. And mysteriously, the right hand of one of the boys is missing.

This painting is one of the most beautiful works of Artemisia Gentileschi, and historians suggest that ‘it can be numbered among her masterpieces’.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Fate of Tiger Temple in Thailand

Photo: Tourists watching chained tigers in the Tiger Temple in Thailand, photo taken in June 2004

The picture shows an area inside the Tiger Temple (Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno) located in the Kanchanaburi Province of Thailand.

Established as a Buddhist forest temple and wildlife sanctuary in 1994, it had about 150 tigers, other animals and birds as of January 2016. The star attraction of the sanctuary was the Tiger Island, spread over five hectares and completed in 2011 at a cost of over US$ 2.5 million. It had 28 tiger enclosures and was a huge hit with local tourists and backpackers.

The whole complex presented a romantic picture, monks living with tigers and other wild animals in perfect harmony. You too could have been part of such a mystical harmony, getting photographed with tigers or even taking a selfie with the magnificent feline friends.

But for a price; reportedly, the entrance fee per head ranged from US$17 to US$140, earning millions of dollars for the temple management.

Over the years, the temple had been accused of illegal breeding and controversial commercial activities. A number of NGOs and conservation and animal rights groups contacted the Thai authorities urging them to take action against the temple.

The NGOs alleged clandestine exports to a tiger farm in Laos, among many other allegations, and asked the authorities to conduct genetical tests to determine the subspecies and pedigree of the big cats.

Breeding tigers for commercial use is restricted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to which Thailand is a signatory, and the unlicensed breeding violates Thai laws too.

The authorities had been persuading the monks to stop all illegal activities. They also wanted the monks to stop exposing tourists to hazardous contact with tigers. The NGOs had already pointed out that there are up to 60 reported incidents annually of captive tigers attacking tourists and/or attendants.

On May 30, 2016, more than 500 officers consisting of wildlife officials, police and vets raided the temple complex. They seized 137 living tigers, 40 frozen cub corpses, a dead bear, a large number of body parts of other animals preserved in freezers and horns of various animals. Some of the dead cubs were found preserved in formaldehyde. They also found protected birds such as hornbills that were being reared without license.

The police also stopped the abbot's secretary trying to flee with tiger skins, over 1000 amulets containing pieces of tiger skin, and other contraband items. They also seized trucks loaded with protected Siamese rosewood.

Some packed carcasses of cubs in containers had labels in English implicating they were for local sale or international trade.

The subspecies of the tigers in this unscientifically maintained sanctuary is not clearly known. However, it is believed that they are mostly Indochinese tigers (Panthera tigris corbetti), along with subspecies such as Malayan tigers (Panthera tigris jacksoni) and some hybrids resulting from cross breeding. One animal was identified as a Royal Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris).

With the help of animal welfare charities, the tigers were rehabilitated by the authorities.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Advent Candles

Photo: Advent Candles lit for the three first Sundays of advent

As the caption says, the picture depicts three candles lit to mark the three Sundays of advent. Another candle is left unlit for the next Advent Sunday.

Commonly Advent Candles marked with dates of December leading up to Christmas Eve are lit in households, and each day a little more is burnt down.

The traditional the color of Advent Candles is white. But as you may see in shops selling Christmas decorations and as being popularly used in households, colored candles marked with dates as in an Advent Calendar have gained more acceptance.

The tradition of lighting Advent Candles has its roots in Germany, gradually gaining popularity in other countries.

The candles, white or colored, can be arranged and lit as per the imagination and creativity of each person. Twigs of green plants and other Christmas decorations and ornaments can be artfully arranged and candles placed imaginatively to make them more appealing, or as in a Christingle.

The symbolism of lighting candles is to celebrating Jesus as the Light of the World.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Yule Log, the Dessert and the Tradition

Photo: A homemade Yule log (Bûche de Noël) made of chocolate filled with raspberry jam - the traditional French dessert for Christmas

Yule log is a traditional dessert served during the Christmas season. It is made from sponge cake and ingredients such as chocolate, butter cream, various extracts, and often shaped like a mini Yule log.

Historically Yule was originally celebrated by the Germanic peoples. In Nordic countries, and in some English speaking countries, words equivalent to Yule are used for Christmas. The customs such as Yule singing, Yule goat and Yule boar are linked to the pagan tradition of Yule.

The pagan Yule can be traced to several fourth century communities, even before they were converted to Christianity. They continued many of their original traditions even after conversion, though they underwent many changes in the course of time.

It is not clear if the historical Germanic Yule feast involved ancestor worship and the cult of the dead, as was prevalent in some pagan rituals. However, when the custom fell out, probably in the 1940s, it became just the dessert.

The English historian Henry Bourne (1694-1733) traced the origin of the Yule log to Anglo-Saxon paganism. He noted that the celebration involved burning a log of wood, known by names such as Yule Clog, Gule Block or Christmas Block. Its purpose was to illuminate the house and was symbolic of the return of the Sun and seeking longer duration of daylight.

The custom can also be traced to the folklore of England. According to lore, the Yule log is burned at night on the Christmas Eve. It should burn uninterrupted till only ash is left, because relighting it is considered unlucky. People sit around the fire and narrate stories of ghosts.

While setting fire to the log, people keep silence and make their wishes silently. After this, candles are lit from the fire and placed on a table following which silence can be broken. No other lights must be lit that night. Often a piece of the wood is saved to be lighted along with the next year's log. On the Christmas morning, a leaf or a tree branch is brought home before taking anything out of the house.

In France, where the custom is known as Bûche de Noël, the branch from a fruit bearing tree is circumambulated thrice around the house and blessed with wine, before burning. This custom seems to have been discontinued by a log-shaped cake, known as Bûche de Noël.

Yule log is also similar to Badnjak as in Slavic mythological rituals and other customs such as smearing the log with the blood of fowls or goats. The ash from the log is scattered in gardens and agricultural fields to promote fertility on the New Year's Eve.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Taj Mahal by Moonlight, painting by Charles William Bartlett

Photo: The Taj Mahal by Moonlight (1923), oil on canvas painting by Charles William Bartlett, now located in Honolulu Museum of Art, Hawaii, USA

Charles William Bartlett was an English artist who settled in Hawaii, USA. In 1913, Bartlett along with his wife traveled to South Asia and the Far East during which he visited the Taj Mahal. The painting of the monument depicts it when it was in a state of disrepair and lack of proper maintenance. However, it had enough splendor to inspire him to paint the monument of love.

Ever since the Taj Mahal was built, it has been able to instill in the visitors a sense of emotional attachment with it. Incidentally, it creates different emotions in different people. This painting invokes a sense of lost grandeur as well as a majestic invincibility. Also there is a mystic, eerie atmosphere surrounding it. As it is the view of the monument lit by moonlight, which is a romantic experience to most visitors, the painting also makes the viewer remember her/his loved ones.

The Taj Mahal is a Mughal period mausoleum, constructed mainly with translucent Makrana marble and decorated with inlays of precious and semiprecious gemstones. It is situated on the south bank of the Yamuna River in the Indian city of Agra.

Commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1631 in memory of his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal who died giving birth to their 14th child, construction of the monument began in 1632. The main mausoleum was completed in 1643, work continuing for another ten years till the rest of the complex was completed.

The monument incorporates the architectural and art traditions of earlier Mughal and Persian buildings. It is considered the best example of Mughal Architecture.

The Taj Mahal complex, which has many other buildings, has esthetically landscaped lawns and magnificent gardens. There are several other mausoleums, including those of Jahan's other wives, and a larger tomb near the mausoleum for the favorite servant of Mumtaz.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the seven wonders of the modern world, and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Rabindranath Tagore described it as ‘the tear-drop on the cheek of time’. For many others it is the monument of love. The imperial court documents describe Jahan's inconsolable grief on the death of Mumtaz as the inspiration for the monument.

Soon after the completion of the monument, his son Aurangzeb deposed Shah Jahan and placed him under house arrest at Agra Fort. On his death, Aurangzeb buried in the mausoleum Jahan next to his beloved wife.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Buddha's Hand, an unusual citrus fruit

Photo 1: Buddha's Hand, closed hand-shaped green fruit on semi-dwarf plant

Photo 2: Buddha's Hand, ripe closed hand shaped fruit

Buddha's Hand is a bizarre citron. Its scientific name is Citrus medica var. sarcodactylis, and is a member of the Citrus genus to which lemons, oranges, grapefruit and limes belong.

It’s called Buddha's Hand because of the shape of the fruits that resembles a human hand with fingerlike projections. The origin of this citrus plant, also known as Fingered Citron, is traced to northeast India and China.

The Fingered Citron is an evergreen, large, fast-growing shrub that can grow to a small tree of 3m to 5m height. It has long thorny branches and oblong leaves. Its white flowers have a purple tint and appear in fragrant clusters.

The plant loves temperate climate, and is sensitive to extreme climatic conditions like excessive heat and frost. It can be reproduced from branch cuttings.

Unlike other citrus fruits, Buddha's Hand fruit, looking like a lemon with fingerlike projections, has a sweet aroma. It contains only a very small amount of pulp and negligible juice, and is seedless.

Admired for its unique shape and aroma, the fruit can be eaten raw. It is mainly used in various recipes for its unique flavor, lemony zest and zing, and also to flavor alcoholic beverages. It can be sliced into strips, or chopped and added as special ingredients in sweet breads, cakes, cookies and ice creams.

In traditional medicine, the sliced, dried peel of immature fruits is recommended as a tonic. The fruit is known to help relieve pain and discomfort due to injuries, swellings and bruises and to relieve discomforts related to respiratory diseases, diarrhea, constipation, high blood pressure, heart problems, menstrual issues, etc. (This is no medical advice, consult a doctor).

The fruit is important as a religious offering at Buddhist temples. Buddha prefers fruits with closed fingers, resembling folded hands symbolizing the act of prayer. Some fruits of this plant naturally resemble Buddha's hand symbol and are specially revered. The fruit is a symbol of good fortune, longevity and happiness in China where it is also a traditional offering in temples and given as a New Year gift.

The Fingered Citron is very fragrant and is used in Japan, Korea and China as a perfume for rooms and clothing. It is also grown as an ornamental plant in gardens and in pots placed on porticos and terraces.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation

Photo: St. Gabriel's Greek Orthodox Church in Nazareth

The Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, situated in Nazareth, Israel, is a principal center of Christian pilgrimage. As the name suggests, the place where the church is located is believed to be where the angel Gabriel delivered God’s message to Virgin Mary.

The church, also known as the Church of St. Gabriel, is built over a subterranean spring where Mary was drawing water at the time of the Annunciation, according to the Eastern Orthodox belief. The spring water is still present inside the apse of the church.

The Book of Luke (1:27-35) does not describe the exact location where Gabriel delivered God’s message to Mary, but only mentions Nazareth. However, according to the second century text of James, when the angel addressed her and greeted her she looked around but could see any one. She returned home with the pot of water after which Gabriel appeared before her and informed her about the virgin birth of Jesus.

The church had previously been occupied by the Franciscans and the Greek Catholics. But Zahir al-Umar al-Zaydani, the ruler of Galilee, granted control of the church to the local Arab community of Greek Orthodox faith. Consequently, in 1750, they built a new church just beside the existing one. Since then the Arab Orthodox local council in Nazareth has been running the church.

The original church is believed to have been built during the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine I at the site of a spring that was the only source of water supply to the village of Nazareth.

The water of the spring originates from a mountain known as Jabal as-Sikh and flows underground for 17 meters and emerges in the church. From there it continues to flow 130 meters further to surface at Mary's Well. This was the well from which Mother Mary and boy Jesus used to draw and drink water. But today, there is a nonfunctional structure rebuilt for the millennium celebrations of Nazareth in 2000.

The spring within the old chapel can be accessed from the present church by descending a few steps, and water can be drawn from it.

Another important center of pilgrimage is the Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation built over a cave which is believed to have been the house where Mary lived.

Annunciation, painting by Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Verrocchio

Photo: The Annunciation, oil on panel painting by Italian artists Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Verrocchio, 1472-1475, 38.6 x 85.4 in (98 × 217 cm), now in Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

The subject of the painting is based on a narrative by Luke according to whom during her betrothal the angel Gabriel sent by God announced to her that she would miraculously conceive through the Holy Spirit and give birth to a son. He told her that the baby was to be named Jesus. The subject has been very popular in Christian Art.

The Annunciation is widely considered the first work of the young Leonardo da Vinci completed in collaboration with his master Andrea del Verrocchio.

Following the established tradition of the times, the painting depicts Gabriel on the left and Virgin Mary on the right with a lectern in between. The architectural setting that opens out onto a landscape does not look to belong to the period when Mary lived. But it was born out of da Vinci’s fantasies of modern architecture, not even of his times, but much ahead.

Some immature visualization can be noticed, for instance, with poplars and pines and the mountains at a distance that seem to be full of greenery which defies logic as the geographical setting of Mary is in the Middle East where such vegetation is unusual.

However, da Vinci’s Annunciation is known for the perfection of linear geometric perspective in art, which later was widely followed by other artists.

In the picture, angel Gabriel is kneeling before Mary while delivering God’s message. He is depicted as draped in rich clothing and holds a Madonna lily. Mary, dressed in equally rich, supple drapery, is shown as was reading, and raises her eyes towards the angel and raises her hand in a gesture of surprise, or rather fear.

When The Annunciation was brought to the Uffizi Gallery from a convent near Florence in 1867, it was credited to Domenico Ghirlandaio, who was also an apprentice of Verrocchio. But later it was established by art experts to be the work of da Vinci in collaboration with Verrocchio.

The painting, as many other paintings depicting Annunciation, shows the angel appearing before Mary at her residence. But some other narratives say that the angel appeared before her when she went to the well to draw water. This well, known as Mary’s Well, is located in an area in Nazareth where there are several other churches and pilgrimage attractions in Nazareth. The well is said to have been a popular watering hole for Arabs for several centuries.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Plight of Somali Refugees in Dadaab

Photo: “On the edge of the camp, a young girl stands amid the freshly made graves of 70 children, many of whom died of malnutrition”, Oxfam East Africa, photo by Andy Hall, taken on 25 July 2011.

Dadaab is a desert scrubland town in Garissa County of northeast Kenya, bordering Somalia. It houses the world’s largest refugee complex.

In 1991 a coalition of clan-based rebel groups overthrew the dictator Siad Barre and freed the people of Somalia after a decade long civil war. But the clan leaders could not consolidate their gains and reestablish rule of law. Instead, they fought among themselves for power. As the cumulative effect of clan conflicts and civil war, the economy collapsed and life and property became insecure.

It’s 2016. The civil war still continues in Somalia.

Refugees from Somalia began to arrive in Dadaab in 1992 when the camps at Hagadera, Dagahaley and Ifo were setup. In 2011 more camps were added at Ifo II and Kambioos to accommodate people fleeing from drought and famine.

The Dadaab camps are managed by the UNHCR, ably supported by other aid agencies. In the course of time, the complex has grown like a chaotic town full of slums. Refugees live in tents and huts.

To add fuel to fire, the jihadist group Al Shabaab bombed, maimed and killed civilians and others in Somalia. They disrupted and destroyed life and property as never before. And they scored major military victories throughout 2007 and 2008. And they controlled vast swathes of land in southern Somalia. Their brutalities forced many more people to flee to Dadaab.

People coming from Somalia were starving and malnourished. Though, generally, food and other supplies are rationed on priority to children, many of them die due to malnutrition and infections.

In conflicts of this scale, the first casualty is always children, followed by the weak and old aged.

In November 2013, following the attack on Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall by Al Shabaab, Kenya pushed for the repatriation of refugees. Consequently, a tripartite agreement was signed in Mogadishu by Somalia, Kenya and UNHCR to facilitate voluntary repatriation of refugees.

According to the agreement and assisted by the repatriation package, some people have gone back but many of them now want to return to the camps as they find life in the camps far better and more secure than in Somalia.

Following the Garissa University College attack in 2015 by Al Shabaab, the Kenyan government asked UNHCR to repatriate the remaining refugees to their home country. In May 2016, Kenya unilaterally decided to shut down the camps by the end of November 2016.

Kenya alleges that the jihadist group sourced new recruits from Dadaab and that they are using the camps as terrorist training grounds.

However, there has been international pressure on Kenya to allow the refugees to stay in the camps, and the UNHCR regards it as an irresponsible decision by Kenya.

However, the Kenyan government announced on Wednesday that, in response to the UNHCR request, it would extend the deadline to close the camps by six months, adding that voluntary repatriation will continue.

It’s alleged that refugees are coerced to return. A survey revealed that only 25% are willing to return.

The civil war there is still going on in Somalia. The government is struggling to put the failed economy back on rails. Life there is appalling. There are no jobs, no food to eat. Under these conditions, coerced repatriation will only expose the youth to radicalization.

And, forced repatriation violates the refugees’ basic human rights.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Life and Passion of Christ by Gaudenzio Ferrari

Photo: Stories of The Life and Passion of Christ (1513) by Gaudenzio Ferrari, fresco at the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Italy

The picture depicts Ferrari's wall, narrating the Stories of the Life and Passion of Christ, in the Church of Our Lady of the Graces (Santa Maria delle Grazie), a Roman Catholic Church in Italy. The giant fresco admeasuring 82 square meters was completed by Gaudenzio Ferrari, the Italian painter and sculptor of the Renaissance, in 1513. Twenty equal frames narrate the main events in the gospels, in addition to the Crucifixion scene in the center that occupies four frames.

The Biblical scenes depicted in the fresco are briefly as below:

In Annunciation Gabriel announces to Virgin Mary that she would conceive the Son of God and become his mother. The angel also tells her to name him Jesus.

The Nativity of Jesus is the scene after the birth of Jesus, born in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod the Great, the king of Judea.

The Adoration of the Magi shows the visit of the Magi who spotted and followed a new star until they found baby Jesus. They saw him with mother Mary, knelt down before him and paid homage. They also presented him with expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The Flight into Egypt displays Joseph fleeing to Egypt with Mary and infant Jesus after the Magi told them that King Herod planned to kill all the newborns.

The Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist is the forerunner to the public ministry of Jesus.

The Resurrection of Lazarus of Bethany (Saint Lazarus) is a miracle of Jesus, who resurrects Lazarus four days after his death.

The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, days before the Last Supper, marks the beginning of his Passion. People crowded around Jesus, believed in him and welcomed him as he entered Jerusalem.

The Last Supper was the last meal shared by Jesus with his Apostles before his crucifixion.

The Washing of the Feet, commemorated on Maundy Friday, shows the event in which Jesus washes the feet of his Apostles.

The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane refers to the events in the life of Jesus between the Farewell Discourse at the Last Supper and his arrest by the temple guards.

The Arrest of Jesus by the Temple guards in the Garden of Gethsemane was shortly after the Last Supper, and immediately after the kiss of Judas.

The Trial of Jesus at Herod's Court refers to an episode in which Herod Antipas and his soldiers mock at Jesus, and sent him back to Pontius Pilate for the final trial.

The Trial of Jesus at Pilate's Court refers to the final trial of Jesus. Though Pontius Pilate publicly declared that Jesus was innocent, the crowd insisted on his punishment. Pilate then ordered crucifixion of Jesus.

The Flagellation of Christ is a scene in the cycles of the Passion and the Life of Christ.

Ecce Homo (Behold the man), the Latin words used by Pontius Pilate, when he presented Jesus, bound with ropes and crowned with thorns, to a hostile crowd.

Via Dolorosa (The Way of Grief) is a street in the Old City of Jerusalem, the path Jesus walked on his way to Crucifixion.

Preparation of the Cross: Christ falls down after which the cross is prepared to crucify him.

In Crucifixion of Jesus (depicted in the large central frame of the fresco), Jesus was stripped of his clothing and hung between two convicted thieves. The soldiers then cast lots for his clothes.

The Lamentation of Christ shows his friends mourning over his body after Jesus was crucified and his body was removed from the cross.

Christ's Descent into Limbo is the scene where Jesus experienced death and his soul joined the other souls in the realm of the dead, but he descended there as the Saviour of the souls imprisoned there.

The Resurrection of Jesus depicts his rising again from the dead. According to the New Testament, after crucifixion, he was buried in a tomb but God resurrected him from the dead.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Lord of Dance Nataraja, Bronze Sculpture

Photo: Nataraja, the Lord of Dance, a bronze sculpture admeasuring 30 × 22.5 × 7 in (76.2 × 57.2 × 17.8 cm) dated between 950 CE and 1000 CE located at the South and Southeast Asian Art Department, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), USA.

The above photograph of the bronze sculpture depicts Lord Shiva in his cosmic dance pose as Shiva Nataraja, the god of all dance and dramatic arts. Apart from the symbolic meanings of the expressions of his legs, hands, face and other body parts, and the objects held by him, the lord is enclosed in a ring of flames. He is shown as lifting his left leg while balancing himself with the other leg on a dwarf demon that is interpreted as symbolic of ignorance. His flowing, whirling hair on both sides of his head shows the spread of cosmic energy.

You can get the correct but varied interpretations of all the artwork related to Nataraja from various scholars especially from Indian scholars who excelled from 12th century onwards and also scholars from other countries who are specializing in Indology and also Indian art and dance forms.

With slight variations of depiction, Shiva-Nataraja figures can be seen, including in temple art and paintings, mainly from the sixth century onwards. The art and culture of many countries such as Indonesia (Siwa in Bali and Java), Thailand, Cambodia (Nrittesvara), and even some central Asian countries were influenced by this form of dancing Shiva. Nataraja is praised, worshiped and revered as the god who created dance and drama, especially, as this form of Shiva in his dancing style is sculpted as per the Hindu texts such as Natya Shastra (attributed to sage Bharata) that describes various aspects of performing arts.

The style and form for all dancing Shiva depictions is the one at Chidambaram Temple in Tamilnadu. The same form is depicted in several Shiva temples in the southern states of India.

In the area comprising and around today’s Tamil Nadu, around the tenth century, the dancing Shiva became a symbol of royalty, and an unavoidable part of Hindu religious practices and festivals. The Cholas who became a major military and economic power during this period were followers of Shaivism. May be for this reason, rightly or wrongly, the Nataraja Bronzes are often referred to as Chola bronzes.

Some scholars, quoting archeological and other evidences also associate the dancing Shiva to the Pallava dynasty (275 to 897 CE).

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Frederic Leighton: Flaming June

The oil-on-canvas painting, “Flaming June” of size 47x47 inch (1200 mm × 1200 mm), is created by the English artist Sir Frederic Leighton (3 December 1830 - 25 January 1896) in 1895. The art world considers this as Leighton's magnum opus.

Though art critics and historians credit the actresses Dorothy Dene and Marie Lloyd for having modeled for Flaming June, it was most likely the Dorothy Dene, whom Leighton met in her teens. On close examination, it seems some other female figures in his other works also resemble Dene.

According to art historians the Victorian artist was inspired immensely by Michelangelo’s monumental sculpture titled “Night”, which is located in the Medici Tombs in Florence, Italy. Even the pose and posture of the figure seems to have been adapted from the Night.

The painting has been thought as lost forever as it was not seen after 1930 until it was found again in 1962. It was auctioned thereafter, and soon after it was purchased by the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Ponce, Puerto Rico, where it continues to belong to. It is one of the sought after attractions of the museum in Puerto Rico.

The setting for the painting is Mediterranean, with the sun brightly reflecting from the waves of the seawater. It provides the realism of natural light for the figure of the sleeping woman. The transparent clothing in flaming, intense colors and the marble setting around are typical of Leighton's style. Thanks to the light from sunset reflecting, her cheeks appear to blush, even though she is depicted as sleeping.

Though Leighton painted several single female figures in the period just before, Flaming June is outstanding from all others as regards use of rioting colors to explore beauty, imagination, emotions, sleep and dreams. Perhaps this departure from his earlier styles makes Flaming June a timeless piece of art and the most recognizable work of Frederic Leighton.

Some art historians associate a symbolism of the highly poisonous oleander plant’s branch at the top with sleep, dreams and possibly death. It may be recalled that Leighton passed away in 1896, not too distant from the time of painting Flaming June (1895).

Flaming June is one of the most reproduced paintings. The dress and posture of the female figure has been imitated for modeling for magazine covers by famous models and actresses, and it has been endlessly copied on every possible surface of consumer interest.

Monday, November 7, 2016

William Daniell: Gates of the palace at Lucknow

This oil on canvas work, “Gates of the palace at Lucknow” dimensions 89cm x 135cm, was painted in 1801 by the English landscape painter William Daniell (1769–1837).

During that period, the artist, along with his uncle Thomas Daniell, was travelling around India and collaborating for their illustrated work called Oriental Scenery.

The year of the painting “Gates of the palace at Lucknow” relates to the period when Awadh, an independent kingdom with its capital at Lucknow, was ruled by Saadat Ali Khan II (1752-1814). Khan, who was installed by the British as Nawab, signed a treaty with them in 1801, and surrendered a huge chunk of Awadh territory to them.

William Daniell later painted a series of watercolors of many sceneries of the coastline of Britain for the book A Voyage Round Great Britain.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Paul Gauguin: When Will You Marry? (Nafea faa ipoipo)

The oil painting titled ‘When Will You Marry?’ (Nafea faa ipoipo) was created in 1892 by Paul Gauguin. The painting depicts a young Tahitian woman dressed in traditional clothes of Tahiti sitting in front of another woman wearing western style clothing. Their facial features show fuller lips, rather conical noses, and the entire facial structures are typical of Gauguin’s usual style of depicting Tahitian women.

If you look at the above painting you can see the foreground is green representing grass, followed by yellow in the middle depicting bare earth and blue beyond, maybe, depicting some water body. Further beyond the women is the brownish yellow area possibly depicting cultivated grain fields where there are other humans, either watching the women, or tending their fields, as the distance denoted by their tiny figures does not show their clear expressions, emotions or intent. Their typical hats indicate they are men. Further beyond in the back of the young beauties some lush greenery and bare hills can be seen.

Gauguin went to Tahiti in 1891 as he wanted to create pure Primitive art depicting original people at their natural surroundings. But Tahiti had already been invaded and colonized by European traders and settlers. Reportedly, about two-thirds of the original inhabitants of the island had already died of diseases brought by Europeans.

He painted many pictures of the indigenous women dressed in their traditional Tahitian clothes as well as in western dresses as seen in the image above. He painted the Tahitians as he actually saw the native women there and also as he could imagine them in his wildest of daydreams.

Gauguin’s color scheme and their use are diametrically opposite to the trend of his times and such experiments with bold pure colors led to the further development of Primitivism, Synthetism, and even influenced artists such as Picasso. Incidentally, for some time, he had occasionally painted in the company of Camille Pissarro and Paul Cézanne.

The words ‘NAFEA Faa ipoipo’ (When will you marry) is written at the bottom right-hand corner of the painting and at the bottom left Gauguin had signed with the year as ‘92. Gauguin usually inscribed his paintings in Tahitian language the rudiments of which he learned after going there.

His bold experimentation with unconventional colors led to the evolution of Synthetism, while his expression of the latent meaning of the subjects of his paintings developed Primitivism. It is interpreted as a form of his revolt against the established styles of art as he was getting disappointed with the stereotyped European styles. He researched on art emerging from Africa and Asia that appeared to him full of mystic symbolism. Elements of spiritual as well as mystic symbolism also can be observed in his works after he went to Tahiti.

Gauguin’s works are hard to come by in the art market and when they are available for sale the prices are sky-high, running into tens of millions of dollars, because most of his works are now in art museums or held by art collectors and the elite as a form of long term investment.

Nafea Faa Ipoipo became most expensive artwork of the world when its owner, the family of Rudolf Staechelin, sold it privately for US$300 million in February 2015. The buyer is believed to be the Qatar Museums/ the royal family of Qatar. The painting was on loan for about 50 years to the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland, before it was sold.

Vincent van Gogh, a contemporary of Gauguin, with whom he shared a fraught relationship of friendship, hate and jealousy, was financially at par with him before he travelled to Tahiti. However, he did much better than van Gogh who is believed to have sold only one painting during his lifetime (The Red Vineyard, sold for 400 Francs in 1890, equal to about $2000 today to Anna Boch, a Belgian impressionist painter and art collector). However, as is the case of van Gogh, Gauguin’s works became popular only after his death.

It is often said that misfortune and failures are the stepping stones to success. Had the Paris stock market not crashed in 1882 and the art market contracted subsequently, the two sources from which Gauguin became a successful and rich Parisian, leading to Gauguin's financial crash forcing him to pursue painting full-time, the world of today may not have got the rich collection of art created by him.

Some of the art movements influenced by Paul Gauguin are Fauvism, Cubism and Orphism, and some of the artists influenced by him are Picasso, van Gogh, Henri Matisse, André Derain and Georges Braque.