Monthly Archives: July 2009

Strings, blackbirds serenade my summer days

HERE IN my Tower of Light in Oxford, I am lucky enough to back onto Oxford Violins.  When it’s a warm summer day, the guys open their windows and you can hear them tuning and playing the beautiful instruments they make.

A couple of weeks ago, one of the chaps, Bruno Guastalla, came across the back garden to introduce himself. He’d heard me whistling a refrain to the blackbird that hangs around the yard, and joined me for a glass of white wine.

Later, he invited me into the workshop, and it was wonderful to see the tools and equipment they use to create the instruments.

If you go to Oxford Violins’ website, there’s a video showing a violinist playing one of the instruments Bruno made and different stages in the creation of a violin.  It’s all rather magical, really this little area.

They play themselves – I heard them jamming earlier this week, most beautiful.

Observatory Street is a study in pastels

THIS IS A SNAP of Observatory Street, close to Jericho, North Oxford.

observatory
It’s called Observatory Street because it’s close to the observatory and the rather surprising Tower of the Winds, based on the tower in Athens.

More of the dancing in the British Museum

Garden & Cosmos: The Natha Sampradaya revisited

THE BRITISH MUSEUM has a whole season of exhibitions and events about India – it calls this its “Indian Summer” – an expression that in English usually applies to unseasonally nice weather rather later in the year, like “fall” or Autumn as we Brits call it.

I visited the British Museum today to see its “Garden & Cosmos” exhibition – sponsored by HSBC and subtitled “The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur”.

There is little about gardens in the wonderful exhibition but there are some beautiful paintings related to an “obscure religious cult” called the Nath Sampradaya.

The Nathas, reckon scholars – and what would they know – started kicking in around the 13th century and many of the paintings in the exhibition reflect the support of the rajas of Jodhpur, in Rajasthan and form part of the collection of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust.  Very many of the highly detailed paintings in the exhibition relate to these “nathas”, in particular there are some paintings from the Nath Purana.

The exhibition was very well attended – it’s had quite a lot of publicity. The leaflet doled out to you when you arrive says: “Man Singh’s artists proclaimed Nath greatness and teaching in hundreds of paintings and monumental manuscripts. Nath yogis, recognised by their grey ash smeared skin and pointed hats, are depicted proclaiming their new ideas. Their guru is shown superior to the traditional Hindu gods”.

Man Singh lost his kingship in 1843 when the British arrested two senior Nathas for allegedly kidnapping a Brahmin. The Indian Mutiny – or the First War of Independence – as India describes it, occurred just a few years later and many authors have suggested that sadhus, holy men, helped foment the insurrection against the missionaries’ position.

A rather sad cartouche, next to one of the glorious paintings in this exhibition, suggested that after Man Singh was ousted, the “temples” of the Natha Sampradaya fell into desuetude and the sampradaya (tradition) lost its force.

I dunno who wrote that cartouche. In Rajasthan there are still very many ashramas of the Natha Sampradaya. I’ve visited many of them myself, thanks to the great kindness of one of the abbots. The paintings often show the padukam of the gurus of the Natha sampradaya – one very nice one shows everything flowing from those feet. I tried to count the Nathas – if there’s 108 of them, I would not be at all surprised.

108 is a sacred number in the tantrik and Natha traditions. The rosaries the sadhus wear are often rudrakhas and number 108 beads. A human being is supposed to breathe 21,600 times in a day of 24 hours – half of these are ascribed to the sun, the other half to the moon.

shri shri 108 matsyendranath jiI listened to many visitors closely inspecting the wonderful paintings in the exhibition. Clearly, very few of them had ever heard of the Natha Sampradaya – didn’t know that Gorakhnath and his guru Matstyendranath more or less created hatha yoga – and were clearly puzzled by these strange sadhus who on the one hand renounced the world and on the other hand promoted the common welfare of the people that supported them.

Matsyendranath, pictured above – and the picture is courtesy of a Natha mahant (abbot) in Rajasthan – was swallowed by a fish, a little like Jonah.

It is rather fantastic that the paintings are in the British Museum, though, despite the lack of supporting information to help assist the wanderers in the place. The exhibition lasts until the 23rd of August and it’s £8 to enter. Or free if you’re a British Museum “member” which costs £40 a year.

Almost finally, Thames & Hudson has produced a rather fantastic book which contains many of the paintings in this exhibition. The paperback costs £30 and the hardback edition £36 so there’s some kind of stock control unit (SKU) marketing nonsense going on there. Its ISBN number is 978-0-500-51443-6. The authors are Debra Diamond, Catherine Glynn and Kami Singh Jasoi.

Samadhi of Shri Shri 108 Mannath Ji

Samadhi of Shri Shri 108 Mannath Ji

There’s a bibliography but I can’t find any mention of the English translation of  Kaulajnananirnaya ascribed to Matsyendrath in 1986.

Almost finally, because on my way out of the exhibition, people seemed to be singing a Baul song, and three lasses were dancing rather effectively. The sound is non existent – sorry about that. Perhaps I should have used my Crackberry.

This exhibition is well worth a visit. If you know nothing about the Natha Sampradaya you will be very puzzled. If you know anything at all about this very ancient tradition of yogis and yoginis, you’ll be very pleased indeed.

Mannath is the founding guru of one of the panths of the current Natha Sampradaya – there are  12 confederated into the Baro Panth.

Quite a lot of the paintings in the exhibition are related to the Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati. Disclaimer: I own www.shivashakti.com. You can read some Natha texts in this PDF book, here. There’s obviously money in India.

Monty tells of strange Indian tales

I’M REALLY enjoying reading Monty’s  (Paul Munford) Indian Outlook.

I worked with Monty years back at Castle Despair, or VNU UK as it then described herself.  Monty is on a sabbatical in India for a year, and he’s up to issue number 34 right now.

The latest newsletter says that the Indian government has asked ISPs to ban a web site called www.Savitabhabi.com. This is an adult cartoon site, but it’s very mild by our standards, says Monty.

People who want to defend web content have set up a site called www.savesavita.com. The paradox is that India in the 21st century has rather a puritanical streak. This is despite the fact that India is the land of tantra and the Kama Sutra, and the Sanskrit language and a great deal of its literature is sensuous and even erotic.

Places like Khajuraho and Hampi (Vijayanagar) are full of carvings and statues that express the joy of sexuality and love. But now,  the ra-ra girls in 20/20 cricket matches are shown only for seconds, in case they excite viewers too much.

This picture is from Khajuraho. Some of the carvings have been defaced.

khajuraho

You can subscribe to Monty’s Indian Outlook by sending an email here. I’ve tried to contribute to understanding Indian culture on this web site.

Lights go out at Personal Computer World

TO THE CLACHAN in Kingly Street to attend the wake of British magazine Personal Computer World (PCW).

Practically every hack that worked for the mag over the years was there – Guy Kewney, Simon Crisp, Barry Fox, Manek Dubash, Clive Akass – heck the packed gig was full of people and I was there because I gigged as a freelance for PCW in the early 1990s.

The magazine was a real force to be reckoned with for many years, and it’s a shame to see a fine publication go.  It’s another example of the schizzy problem big publishers have – they know that online is the way to go but are fettered with existing paper publications with all the overheads, including distribution and printing, that go with that.

It was great to see some familiar faces again, and I wish all the guys the best in the future.  The magazine was latterly owned by Incisive – that company bought the assets of VNU UK, the publishers that bought theinquirer.net from me a few years ago.

* Guy Kewney said Peter Jackson tipped up. I missed him. I don’t think Felix Dennis, the founder of PCW who has a gaff on Kingly Street managed to make it. He was on the flannel panel until the end.