How past pandemics like the Black Death painted loss and suffering across canvas
Edvard Munch, the artist whose work so well expressed the terror and solitude of modern life, spent a lifetime battling anxiety. He was five when his mother died of tuberculosis. Nine years later, his beloved sister succumbed to the disease. The artist’s childhood was also marred by ill-health. When he caught the Spanish Flu at his country house in Ekely, Norway, in 1918, his chances of survival were slim. But he made it. That experience found space in two works — Self Portrait with the Spanish Flu (1919, oil on canvas) and Self Portrait after the Spanish Flu (1919). In both, he appears emaciated, but the colour returns to his face in the second, and he looks straight into the eyes of the viewer.
A century later, as the COVID-19 pandemic shuts down the world, Munch’s work is being shared to sum up our present. The experience of being battered by waves of disease is not new to humanity — and has shown up in the work of artists before. In looking at the art of pandemics past, we search for resonances and answers that can make sense of today.
‘Basuda didn’t get his due’: Amol Palekar
Would you like to change your name, Amol? Like say ‘Anmol Kumar’?” Basuda (Basu Chatterjee) had asked me immediately after Rajnigandha (1974) was ready for a release. He was taking the film to various distributors, who were not ready to take the risk of distributing a film with unknown newcomers. Till then, V Shantaram, C Ramchandra and Master Bhagwan were among the few leading Marathi/ Maharashtrian names in the film industry. Probably to survive the north Indian onslaught of Kapoors and Kumars, they had felt compelled to change their original names — Vanakudre, Chitalkar and Bhagwan Abhaji Palav, respectively.
Is food always on the mind of a chef?
Suvir Saran tells us that he’s been passionate about food since he was “four or five” and then surprises us by revealing that as a schoolboy, he had absolutely no inclination towards a career in food. A student of Modern School in New Delhi, he did well academically as well as in artistic pursuits like music and sculpture. “So I thought that if I cannot be a doctor, then I should be an artist,” he says.
Instead, Saran, 47, ended up making a name for himself in the culinary world, helming the kitchen of Devi in New York City, the first North American restaurant serving Indian food to be awarded a Michelin star. Saran moved back to India in 2018 following a major health crisis — a combination of complications brought on by a mini stroke and orthostatic hypotension, which included concussions, memory loss, loss of vision and motor skills. Not that it slowed him down.
Locusts aside, have you met infiltrator wasp?
Mother Nature really seems to have it in for us. As if letting loose COVID-19 on the world was not enough, she decided that a ferocious cyclone that would flatten and flood large swathes of eastern India would also be in order. But, probably feeling that north-west and central India might feel left out, she upped the ante. And, so, here come the locusts!
Locusts are basically grasshoppers with a gross eating and breeding disorder (and are very crunchy and high in protein — although, they need to be insecticide-free to make a safe snack) and I’ve always liked their sprightly green cousins. Grasshoppers have a remarkable catapult sort of mechanism that enables those prodigious leaps. I’m pretty tolerant of most creepy crawlies, although I wouldn’t want to share my dinner with a cockroach (which I was once nearly made to do in a Mumbai hospital’s ICU ward, years ago). But I like and admire spiders — even wolf spiders camping on the potty lid — as well as scorpions which remind me of medieval knights in armour, getting ready for jousts. But leeches and ticks — no thanks. And centipedes that launch guerrilla attacks in the shower are immediately neutralised with the toilet brush.
Can the world learn from the Indian practice of reservation?
Thomas Piketty shot into prominence in 2013 with Capital in the Twenty-First Century which unravelled, with great acuity, the inherent nature of capitalism to sharpen inequalities of income and wealth. Capital and Ideology builds on it and is decidedly more ambitious. It opens with the arresting proclamation: “Every human society must justify its inequalities”, or the entire social and political construct could collapse. Scholars look at income inequality in purely economistic terms, but Piketty is among those who look at such issues holistically, in their economic, sociological, historical, political and even cultural ramifications. Such overarching scholars are a rare breed and are usually indebted to Karl Marx. In the Communist Manifesto (1848), Marx had asserted: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Piketty offers another compelling perspective which is in agreement: “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of the struggle of ideologies and the quest for justice.”
‘Equality scares those who see themselves having the most to lose’
What prompts an award-winning children’s writer to turn her gaze towards fiction for adults? For British novelist, poet and playwright Kiran Millwood Hargrave, it was the Steilneset Memorial, which drew her attention to a Scandinavian calamity and its terrible aftermath — the Vardø storm of 1617 in northern Norway, that nearly decimated the island’s male population, and the witch trials that followed in 1621, one of the biggest in Scandinavian history. “I discovered the story of the 1617 storm and the 1621 witch trials through a piece of art — an installation by (French-American) artist Louise Bourgeois. She created an extraordinary cage of smoked glass, in which sits a metal chair, on fire, and surrounded by bronze mirrors. It says a lot about culpability, voyeurism, horror, and beauty,” says Hargrave, 30. The memorial, built by Bourgeois and Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, is a tribute to the victims of the witch trials.
How narratives of sacrifice is of supreme import for the Pakistan Army
While it is well known that the Pakistan Army relied heavily on the Pothohar region of rural Punjab for recruiting soldiers, Maria Rashid’s book shows in depth how it has systematically cemented a military culture, building bonds of affectation with men, their wives and mothers in the famed ‘Land of the Valiant’, Chakwal. This was achieved not only through benevolent management of recruitment and training practices, but also a calculated manipulation of grief, death and compensation to families. This may have become necessary to enable villagers to adjust to a change in perception of the enemy, from the “traditional” Indian to the new “internal Muslim”, confronted especially in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in the last two decades.
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