Mala Marwah essays

All of Baroda is redolent with the secrets of an old city, writes Mala Marwah of the Gaekwads’ ancient capital, where palaces and old fashioned bakeries coexist amiably with the Indian Petro-chemical complex and a space-age planetarium.

It is always very atmospheric to write 'Leaves from a Diary’ when recounting something, but it can trip you… In die early 70, as a student at the Faculty of Fine Arts, at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. I sent a piece under this title to an old school friend but mis-spelt 'diary', placing the A before the I. She wrote back 'Well it’s nice to know what’s up with your head but what on earth are you doing writing your memoirs in a milk-booth?"

Thinking about this now I believe it wouldn't have been such a bad idea: certainly better than suffering in the library in a straight-backed chair, waiting for the - Muse to come crashing through the ceiling bearing B-minuses in her knapsack. The truth is, all of Baroda, every building, lane, park and cranny was redolent with the secrets of an old city poised at the brink of a brief and beautiful autumn, the same that augurs a change which will break the spell. We happened to be there at that fateful time, to see several Banyan trees, hundreds of years old - after which the city is named - cut down to accommodate a highway that ran through the University and had now begun its intrusions elsewhere, including an old residential area with several historic houses. It was a troubling augury, and only one of many. But a great deal else did survive in strange and ironic ways. I hope it always will.

Chief among delights was the Baroda Museum Picture Gallery, situated in the Sayaji Bagh known popularly as the Kamati Bagh Museum - corrupted, we were told, from Committee Bagh. Standing across the road from the Fine Arts College: it dominated our activities. In architecture typical of the time (late 19th century), there were classical bas-reliefs beneath oriental cupolas: ceramic tiles next to picturesque dormer windows. At that time the Department of Museology, part of the Fine Arts family, had shelter in a small section of this edifice owing to space constrictions, and at one stage a fine group of stone Sapta-Matrikas, recently rescued from obscurity, stood - or rather sat - lined up against a wall of the Museum facing a ramshackle canteen. Here, dipping into hot tea and bhajias at rickety blue metal tables we wondered that no one even bothered to steal them. Curiously, before this awesome display ii was the giant lawn-roller in the corner that seemed to possess deific powers, not the goddesses that lay strewn among the tall grass. We were sure this meant something but weren't clear what. It came back much later. In the meantime the tiny panes of the dormer windows winked messages in what must- surely be Museum Morse , of goings-on within. In the Occidental section, up a staircase from the vast Oriental collection - presided over by a portrait of Maharani Chirnnabar, resplendent in gold-bordered saree and pearls - are original works by European masters; and a sketchbook of Romney. All the riches of this museum, whose greater collection was made by Dr Hermann Goetz, are arranged about the most priceless of pictures - a painting on cloth illustrating an episode of the Dastan-i-Amir Hamza, also known as the Hamza Nama. One of the precious few left in India from this series, this unmatched album was created for Emperor Akbar by his karkhana of Hindu and Muslim artists under the supervision of Mir Sayyid Ali and Khwaja Abdus Samed Shirinqalm. It is boxed in with glass: our sketching enthusiasms humbled, we approached this masterpiece as pilgrims.

Upstairs, pilgrims of another kind coursed through. A group of adivasis - regular visitors to the Chitrashala! - peering earnestly at a glass case full of small Italian copies with elaborate gold-coloured frames. Groups of middleclass Gujarati families - the children, monkeys on holiday, seeing the sculptured group of nudes called 'The Three Graces', giggling madly. The adivasis notably unfazed by nakedness. One little schoolboy, with his shirt out of his shorts, reached out and tried to feel the nearest lady's marble bottom but one of the' attendants yelled very loudly at him and he ran away.

Around the University the city spread, somewhat absent-mindedly. At one end Baroda boasted the impeccably maintained Alembic township, its factories, hospital school and well known bakery (heart shaped jeera biscuits: splendid support while trying to unravel Anandavardhan or Aristotele). Still further lay the Indian Petro-Chemical complex and the Gujarat Refinery, from where families journeyed to Mandvi, the cloth-jewellery-and-sundries market in the old city, evocative even in their decay.

These contrasts are far gentler than they sound, and are perhaps typified in the design of the Kamati Bagh, where some distance across from the Samadhi of the great Gujarati poet Jhaver Chand Maghani, standing in a grove of enormous banyans, lies the Sardar Patel Planetarium with its seating capacity of 200 and a dome fitted with a space master installed by Carl Zeiss.

Outside Dhanwantri, the residence of the Vice-Chancellor, stood an old cast-metal weathervane, curiously-fashioned: a round orb with three or four funnel-like openings with an arrow attached, standing on a long pole. How many must there be in the city? The only way to find out was to walk, in a wide looping arc from Kothi to Lakshmivilas Palace, through Dandia Bazaar to Khanderao Market thence to Jubilee Bagh, Raopura, and home. All the waz from Kothi up to the Shantadevi Nursing Home, old buildings - one, a library with unusual brick columns - and spacious gardens contrasted with the clamour of Dania Bazaar an its silver and saree shops.

In the glare of shop-bulbs at Khanderao Market, amid crowds and traffic, shone luminous mounds of vegetables and black clay water jugs for camel saddles, a striking prelude to the purchase of five small books at the East and West Bookstore, including Headlong Hall and Nightmare Abbey, absolutely unreadable but most beautifully illustrated. The two gracious gentleman who ran the shop had supplied generations of students with their reading material, and knew nearly each one of us by name. Mr. Joshi offered me a glass of sugar-cane juice. Between sips, remembering the business of the weather vanes. I began taking notes on my palm with a ball-point pen: one at Kala Ghoda, one at Lal Court… Mr Padekar, looking over my shoulder, laughed and shook his head. Some years ago when I was home for a long visit he passed away. To me his memory is as fresh as yesterday.

Of the many pictures that come to mind of Baroda, several have found a permanent parallel in the paintings of Bhupen Khakkar. Every wooden shack, painted seagreen or cerulean blue, with its republican barber and panted glass is a neighbourofhiswell-known painting of a Hair Cutting Saloon: his view from a Teashop, with its teacups, kettle and flapping curtain directly related to a rural-industrial landscape, particular and general at the same time, as familiar in Baroda as in Lonavla.

The most fleeting of visits to College revealed that despite obligations to a much neglected Muse, it simply did not do to take yourself seriously.

Senior student (nearly always Maharashtrian, male): 'What's that stuff you're reading?

Junior student (could be anybody from anywhere): Er... Longinus ... 1st. Cent. A.D ... Essay on Hupsos. Meaning. sublime elevation.... .

Senior student: Hupsos? Hupsos! HUP-two·three·four-HUPsos! (vaulting easily over six stacked easels).

Junior too crushed to respond.

Among the things that survive are some that may appear eccentric at first, both in humans and in nature. Watching a sparrow build its nest behind a large sculpted portrait head we realise that perhaps it isn't all that eccentric after all. Often our attempts at altering things end in defeat of one or another kind. As another tree is felled, another fence and turnstile added to once-open lawns, a' subtle change begins effecting itself elsewhere. Upstairs in the corridors of the darkening museum, rows of silk and khimkhab turbans lie in glass cases beneath a thin film of dust, and there is a musty subterranean feeling about; not surprising, considering the exhibits include a Tibetan trumpet made from a human thigh-bone, and an assortment of minerals and rocks.

It came back, slowly. The venerable lawn-roller anointed with bird's droppings beneath the aged trees; presiding deity of the compound. The museum itself looking more like an archaeological mound than a house where artefacts rescued from the dust are preserved. This is the direction life has always taken: Nature is always teaching us lessons.


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