Tuesday, January 24, 2012

India in the classroom

One of the most memorable experiences I had in India came on the last day, when we visited the Delhi Handicrafts Museum. This is a museum where one can encounter not only works of art, but living artists, who come to the museum from all over India and produce their works and sell them directly to visitors. Visitors are able to meet and talk to the makers of the objects they buy.

During our visit, I noticed that David Dudrick appeared to be having a very intense interaction with a woman standing in front of some large painted scrolls. She was singing and gesturing to the images. David was clearly very moved by it, and I snapped his picture.

I stayed and listened a while longer. I learned that the woman, whose name is Mommi Chitrakar, is a maker of something called a "pat," a scroll that illustrates a song (or serves as an aide-memoire to the singer). She was selling scrolls that depicted a variety of stories, including an episode of the Ramayana (which, naturally, was purchased -- see my previous post, "Shadows of Homer"), as well as one about the Titanic (which seemed to be closely based on the movie). She was more than happy to sing all the scrolls' songs for us. Eventually, she showed us one about the 2004 tsunami. Here is a video taken by Dai Yamamoto of her singing this song: video link

The images and the song, sung in a slow, mournful tone, were very moving. At the top of the scroll was the angry god who caused the tsunami; below were images of women and children in the water, an anthropomorphized helicopter rescuing one of them, and at the bottom, the benevolent water spirit who was now watching over those who drowned. Fascinated by the work for a variety of different reasons, a group of the Colgate faculty travelers decided to pool the resources of our various departments, and the tsunami scroll came home with us (kindly transported by Bruce Rutherford).

And out it came today for the first meeting of my Core 151, Legacies of the Ancient World class. The students had read the first book of the Iliad, and they were quick to see a number of parallels between that work of art and this one. We talked about the notion of humans at the mercy of some rather capricious gods (and also under their protection); about works of art as responses to traumatic events (like the Trojan War, or a natural disaster); and about songs as a way of telling stories and preserving cultural memory.

And guess what will feature in Thursday's meeting of my other class this semester, an art history seminar focusing on a group of ancient Egyptian relief sculptures in the Picker Art Gallery? The tsunami scroll!

Thursday's class is about the difference between works of art with a known historical context and works of art without one (such as the Picker reliefs). The scroll can illustrate the point beautifully. Five hundred years from now, it could well turn up on the art market, be admired for its moving subject and vibrant forms, purchased, and hung on the wall of a museum. Chances are good, however, that the scroll's connection to Mommi Chitrakar's song will have been lost; the vast majority of stories and songs don't get written down, and thus don't survive the cultural shifts that prevent one generation from passing them down to the next.

Little will the scroll's future owner know that he is only getting half of the original work. This is, sadly, the situation we are in with many of the works of art that turn up on the art market, severed from the architectural, archaeological, or cultural context for which they were created. We have no idea how much of the original work, the original story, we are missing.


  1. Liz: This is wonderful. I'm so glad that it's working so well in the classroom. I'm thinking of ways to bring my India experiences into my CORE China class next week. I feel like I'm bursting with so much about India that I'm afraid it will end up hijacking the course.

    FYI, unfortunately, the photo you posted isn't showing up the blog. I'm sure people will want to see the wonderful scroll

  2. I think it's there now. Actually, the photo (with Dudrick's shoulder) shows her singing about a different scroll (which seemed to be about some sort of car accident). The tsunami scroll is visible just to the right; you can see the whole thing on Dai's youtube clip. One thing I feel strongly after the India trip is a heightened curiosity about China; as I mentioned to Chris, next time you guys are over there, be prepared for a visit!

  3. Yes, the photo's up now. Thanks!

  4. What beautiful singing and scrolls. Thank you for posting this Liz. And the video is excellent, Dai.