December 30, 2013

Wrapping up 2013 - and welcoming 2014!

Judging from the last post and the several others I have dedicated to it in this last year, it would seem that I did precious little apart from Instagramming;) Well, I browsed through my blog archives and did a little bit of flashbacking to see what I was up to in 2013 - and it turned out that there was plenty of travelling, rekindling of creativity, whether it was writing, photography or painting, meaningful interaction with fellow creatives, and absorbing all the incredible sights of the multiple, diverse worlds that I happened to access throughout the year.

Here are a few vignettes:


I began to discover the city which I have called home for the past one year via a delicately blooming cluster of magnolia trees and bold, beautiful eye-sculptures. 


Spotting bio-luminscent bacteria, swimming in impossibly clear seas, and photographing deliciously hued tropical blooms and ice-cream colored houses in Puerto Rico = the best holiday ever!

 I discovered the joy of merging painting and collaging!


I pursued photography and more specifically, photo-essays and was featured in The Aerogram.


I wrote a lot more non-fiction, exploring the intersection of fashion, style, and personal narrative here and here.


I mused about what it is like to create a home, object by object, thought by thought...

All year-around:

I had the opportunity to interact and meet with some fabulously talented international women artists while guest-blogging for International Museum of Women's blog, Her Blueprint, such as Mona Kamal, Tulika Ladsariya, and Haleh Anvari (work featured above).

Wonder what 2014 will have in store?:)

 In the meantime, here's wishing each and every one of my readers a very Happy New Year! May 2014 bring you all that you aspire for and that you enjoy every moment that the forthcoming year has in store for you, like blooms of breathtaking beauty encased in buds limning tree branches...

December 26, 2013

The Stream of Consciousness/Poetry: Boxing Memories via Instagram

Multiple Memories, Pittsburgh

On a recent long-haul flight, I ended up re-watching the Hindi film, 'Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani' and something about the opening scenes snagged my attention. The leading lady, Naina (Deepika Padukone) is reminscing about a life-changing trip to Manali she took several years ago and once she eventually finishes flash-backing and drifts back into the present, we find her surrounded by keepsakes she has preserved from that trip. It got me thinking then about how I too once upon a time used to similarly and carefully preserve objects - notes, cards, gifts, trinkets - which had great sentimental importance and store them in pretty boxes...and more importantly, why I no longer do so anymore. Coincidentally, soon after I landed home, I received a message from friend and fellow blogger, Khadija, telling me how many things she had recently donated and how she finds that she doesn't seem to attach importance to these objects anymore. "I don't want things anymore," she told me. "Suddenly, they have no meaning and are just taking up space."

Leafing Through, Pittsburgh
I was quite a bit of a collector during my childhood and teenage days and I must say that the habit still persists; I continue to collect fallen leaves or feathers and will often place them in bowls or dress up my coffee-table with these found treasures. Yet, these objects increasingly hold ephemeral significance for me; as soon as they cease to fascinate me, I do not have any compunctions in bidding them farewell. Unlike earlier times, when I would bring back home a pinecone or a pebble or a shell as a physical, tangible reminder of a holiday or experience and steadfastly hold onto them, I am now finding myself shoeboxing memories, so to speak, in written/visual form. An object can easily shatter or be misplaced or simply disappear...a visual and written record is more durable and permanent, and ultimately, much more effectively bottle the mood and spirit of a moment or a journey. Suffice to say, I would prefer to photograph the object and memorialise in it in that fashion, rather than keeping the physical object itself!

Raspberry-Lime, Pittsburgh

Looking Up, Warwick Art Centre
And so I have taken to recording my experiences - whether its daily quotidian (eccentric flower-bouquets, garlic bulbs, a lady bug) or preserved-in-amber worthy (dramatic sunsets, clear, jade Puerto Rican seas) - in a daily diary and for the past one year, particularly via Instagram. What with my phone being my third-eye, constantly observing and documenting whatever catches my fancy, Instagram allows me to specifically curate these moments. If my phone camera roll is a stream of consciousness, Instagram becomes poetry, streamlining and condensing these moments into intense, singular experiences.

In addition, it has made me even more sharply and vividly aware of the river of sights that streams past me every day; what I earlier may have been oblivious to re-presents itself in form of quirky visual messages instead. I am learning to distil beauty from the mundane and create dream-like stories from a family of otherwise merely sundry individual objects.

Chopsticks, Pittsburgh

Morjis, Muscat
When I cast an eye on my feed for the past eleven months, moments brilliantly leap out to me, like a fish arcing from water at dawn. They are safely stored away in this virtual chocolate box of memories, allowing me to re-experience nuances of these special coordinates of time as if they happened just yesterday, rather than long ago...

How do you preserve your memories? I would love to hear!

December 7, 2013

Being featured in Once Upon a Tea Time's online magazine

I have been following Priya's gorgeously curated blog on interiors, lifestyle, and visual prettiness, Once Upon a Tea Time for quite a while now. What I have always enjoyed about her blog is that in addition to feasting one's eyes upon beautifully-assembled and presented interiors and learning about various organizations and individuals creating unique and interesting products (I admire how she has consistently supported entrepreneurs and artisans world over and brought them to her readers' attention), I also appreciate how she thoughtfully intersperses these posts with personal meditations upon life and her constantly evolving interiors through features such as A Postcard from My Life.

One of Priya's recent posts was concerning Project Home - and I felt compelled to write in with my thoughts and pictures. She then later graciously invited me to contribute these thoughts in form of a short piece for the first issue of her online magazine celebrating her blog's fifth birthday. I was honored to be part of these birthday celebrations and associated with her blog...and looking forward to the magazine's subsequent issues!

I am reproducing the piece and pictures below here:

Blue Moon

 'Project Home', which was a thoughtful meditation upon what home means to different people, made me think quite a bit about what home means to me. I initially associated it with 'homelands'; 'Project Home'  made me perceive it in terms of physical sanctuaries instead. I must say that getting married, moving to a different country, and having a home of your own quite literally turns the definition on its axis. Now that I have a home, I am much more mindful of the elements that will contribute to making my home an enjoyable and beautiful space to inhabit and be surrounded by. I am still gradually building it up; as I am most likely to shift home in few months, I can't layer or extensively decorate the place as much as I did like to. However, it's also simultaneously impossible to live in a bare space and I am learning to strike a balance between minimalism and maximalism. My home at the moment therefore is a reflection of my present state of mind: I am in transition and yet, I need to populate my immediate spaces with little bits and pieces to call it my own.

Dressing the Mirror
Spilt Shadows

What are these bits and pieces? I have used miniature pumpkins and fallen leaves as table center-pieces; I decorate my shelves with ceramic bowls painted and glazed at a ceramic art store (his and mine). There is a pink framed mirror dressed with a Rajasthani leheriya dupatta and paper kites flying high on the wall above it. Above the dining table, a tomato red and saffron Rajasthani miniature painting depicting a bride travelling to her marital home in a palanquin (how fitting that it is a wedding gift!) looks down at us. Back in my old house, my dressing table was my stage of decor, containing my knick-knacks and some which have migrated from there to here: Moroccan trays, Kashmiri and Iranian boxes, Venetian Masks, and Omani bedouin thread key-rings.

Pumpkin Crisp

Venetian Drama

It's a home being put together and I would any day dress it with what Priya beautifully describes as the patina of life in her 'Project Home' post. It may not look like a photograph from an interior magazine or Pinterest but that is perfectly fine with me. As the evenings darken with winter's onset and I illumine the room, I feel a sense of cosiness and intimacy, surrounded by objects that I brought from my old home and which are now joining the others that my husband and I collect as we build our new home and life together.

December 3, 2013

Almost-winter musings and notes on an inverted Ramayana: Raavan


Is it already the of beginning of December? Has winter officially begun its invasion upon the world? I awakened today to a world shrouded in blank whiteness, sombre, stark snow-limned trees outside my balcony, bearing no memory of their elaborately green, leafy costumed summer selves or when their leaves caught fire only just a few weeks ago. As I briefly wandered through the street, walking upon the slushy tarmac, I marvelled at how swiftly the arrival of snow excises all reminders of the previous worlds. Did a cluster of pink roses really bloom in this house portico? Where had the trio of squirrels vanished to? And who ate the blue sky up?

Well, I will be pondering all these questions and more, perched upon my couch and surveying the winter balcony vistas; in addition, apart from cooking soups, baking desserts, and writing, I also intend to Netflix my way through the winter and catching up on a backlog of movies and shows. Since getting married almost a year ago, I must admit that thanks to my husband, my viewing choices have become much more varied compared to my pre-marriage self, which contentedly inhabited the comfort zone of romantic comedies, quirky favorites and Bollywood masala. It also meant that I lost track of the number of times I remarked that I had heard of so and so acclaimed movie and fully intended to watch it one of these days...only to reach for a DVD of an old favorite whenever I did get around to watching something. However, nowadays, my husband and I frequently and feverishly debate over what to watch and in the process, I have abandoned my comfort-movie diet to experience great documentaries, such as Jiro Dreams of Sushi, international cinema, a delightful Iranian children's movie, The White Balloon, and classics such as The Pianist and Forrest Gump, which I predictably had never got around to watching. I have enjoyed all of these but not before initially resisting and insisting that we watch a Yash Chopra romance for the umpteenth time!

                                                                 Raavan's theatrical trailer

The other night, though, we somehow rather quickly came to a consensus on Raavan; I remember wishing to see it in the cinema in Oman, where I was living at the time but it did not linger in the theatres for too long. However, an intriguing re-interpretation of one of our greatest literary epics, Ramayana and furthermore, that too one which inverts and questions the traditional good vs evil paradigm and redefines the borderland of gray was what compelled both of us to watch it...

Raavan's poetry visuals: a fallen leaf
This contemporary Ramayana takes place in milky mist-shrouded hills, ravines, rivers, and forests; rain is also an omnipresent character in this film and the manner in which the camera explores and utilises the landscape while marrying it to the atmospheric elements is what I particularly liked about this film. The incredible photography and Mani Ratnam's signature mode of telling stories through his visuals means that as viewers, we too parachute into the landscape and experience the elements, the sheer physicality of the river-battered rocks or winding through the dense forests or swan-diving off the cliffs. While there is an inclination to be a little too photogenic and embrace the cosmetic (the incredible shots of Aishwarya trapped in the embraces of a tree branch, much like an ochre leaf caught in twigs only serve to make capital of Rai's beauty for the sake of it, rather than adding texture or weight to the narrative ), I nevertheless thought the landscape actively participates in the story in a palpable, visceral manner. 


However, as crucial and relevant the landscape is to the film, the moot point is the interpretation or rather, more precisely, the inversion of Ramayana; here, we largely see events unfolding from Raavan's perspective, we become privy to his thoughts as much as those of Dev Pratap, the Rama-figure. Indeed, we do find ourselves sympathising with him, as Rai, who initially resists, fights, and later, begans to develop ambivalent feelings about him - and in turn, Dev, her husband, savior, and whom she describes as god. Who or what exactly is god/villain anyway? In this culture-unspecific landscape, nothing is what it seems: what appears to be dense foliage is in fact men in camoflauge. A gesture of peace from the enemy side becomes blotted in blood. Trust evaporates, leaving behind acidic hillocks of distrust and suspicion. 

Concluding shots...

For me, Ramayana has always been problematic in the sense as in its depiction of Lord Rama and his  relationship with his wife, Sita following their return to Ayodhya and how he doubts/questions her. I always perceived Ravan in entirely monochromatic black, a foil to the hero, rather than as a fully nuanced character in his own right; indeed, the most remarkable aspects that I associated with him were his ten-heads and that he abducts Sita in the mythological precedent to the air-plane, the air-vehicle. While the film does not entirely do justice to its provocative contention of recasting Ravaan and indeed, re-presenting the narrative through his eyes, it made me realise more than ever that there is no singular way of narrating a story and that multiplicity of perspectives allows multiple stories and voices. I left the movie, feeling intrigued enough to learn further about Ravan and locating him beyond the broad strokes of antagonist and adversary...

Has there been a significant movie that encouraged you to radically alter a perspective of a situation or character?

November 20, 2013

Travel Memories: Plane, Road, and the Train

Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.

-Anna Quindlen, How Reading Changed My Life

The last few weeks witnessed me literally on the plane, the road, and the train, as I traversed from one coast to another, border-hopped, and enjoyed a meandering train-ride between two states. Each mode of travel had its specific charms - and yet, for me, the crucial word essentially is: travel. Travel makes me so much more closely aware of and inclined to seek out life's beautiful, bizarre, and unique moments than I would do so, when stolidly reposing at home. When I come back home and unpack my bags, the scents of journeys, destinations, places, and people rising from the suitcase interiors, the memories meanwhile restlessly swirl around in my mind, like water gushing from a tap. I close my eyes and let them swim over me...few brilliant flashes then leap out, akin to gorgeously hued pebbles or fish one espies in a flowing stream. At times, it's often the spirit of these memories, rather than the memories themselves, which breathes into my life and subsequently, weaves itself into the fabric of my writing. While interpreting a memory of that journey and destination, the unknown then turns into the familiar, a part of me. 

Browse through my memories below...

By Air: LA
The dreamy sunset

Lady Gaga, suitably attired and presented, almost like a piece of performance/installation art
I had previously been to LA but it was more of a transit encounter than anything else; this time, we had gone there to attend a wedding, which was a beautiful affair atop a hill, encircled by painting-like mountains and a dreamy, smog-imbued sunset. We also took out a day to explore LA's heartbeat, Hollywood and strolling down Hollywood boulevard, we happened to stumble upon a Bollywood tour visiting Madame Tussauds. Quite frankly, I was a little disappointed by well, how, waxy looking the majority of the statues appeared; as for the Bollywood stars, apart from Aishwarya and to some extent, SRK, none of them could be said to be replicas. Having said that, I find it amusing as to why I am disappointed; it's as if I claimed to know them personally and was therefore in a position to gauge how accurately they had been cloned in wax. A bit like visiting the Taj Mahal and then, complaining that it did not live up to the grand expectations that we had accumulated after encountering it in countless photographs, films, and written descriptions. The stars' wax clones meanwhile gazed aimlessly into the distance, islands of soullessness dotting the ocean of celebrityhood.

By Road: Toronto

CN Tower from below

Uber-fied Wall Art
We drove to Toronto, which was about a seven hour drive from Pittsburgh. As we entered Canada and drove upon the Queen Elizabeth highway, I couldn't but recall those occasions during my childhood when we used to drive up to Dubai from Muscat - and upon crossing the border, I would often muse about how the place so seemed like Oman - and yet not. The Toronto sojourn was brief but eventful, including a spontaneous conversation about art, art being boxed in academia, and writing about art in a Starbucks, exploring a costume shop, whose costumes were redolent of multiple lives and inviting you to assume them, discovering funky wall art-packaged walls, witnessing the vista from CN Tower, reuniting with a school friend after 13 years and buying miniature rainbow hued earthenware diyas in preparation for Diwali.

Panda-spotting at Toronto Zoo
We also spent a morning visiting the Toronto Zoo. Of the latter, I am always a little ambivalent; in fact, if given a choice, I would opt out of visiting them altogether, just as I no longer attend circuses anymore as I am always concerned about the potentially inhumane conditions the animals and indeed, the human performers may be subjected to in quest of entertainment and seemingly awe-inspiring antics and feats. However, the prospect of seeing the panda lured me and while it was definitely a 'too adorable for words' moment, I wondered if it was worth coralling them up for our momentary pleasure? And yet, the truth was also that it was precisely for glimpsing the pandas that I had decided to visit the zoo. It was a rainy day; drops of rain and yellow leaves dripped from trees and as I mulled over the zoo (which admittedly houses the animals in a perfectly humane context), we walked past dozing tigers and glimpsed hungry lions, the hunger plain and undressed in their topaz eyes. Standing next to a window, which revealed a cross-section of a pond, two turtles continually swam towards and away from us. How did we appear to them, peering through the looking glass? Or were we just incidental to their lives, like ghost reflections in a mirror?

By train: New Jersey

Moody Sea

I have always loved train-rides; I have taken plenty of them in India and a few times in United Kingdom...and so I was looking forward to my first train ride in the States, which I took to meet another old friend. Even though it was admittedly a long journey, I was lulled into the comforting rhythm of the train as it navigated the tracks and cut through streams, fall foliage, farms, and towns. I felt as if I could examine and wonder about the passing world at leisure, rather than hurriedly and indifferently tearing through it with scant interest for the many nuances and details that constituted it. A lone brilliant tree shedding tears of leaves, the leaves pooling around it, a horse-driven carriage steadily weaving through the farms in North Pennsylvania, clusters and clusters of snow-enveloped trees, stoically and poetically watching us rush by, I felt as if I was watching a film montage past me.

Unfortunately, I did not have any photos from the train journey (too preoccupied in absorbing, than compulsively picture-taking for a change!); what I do have is my memory of briefly encountering the sea for the first time after several months. It was also my first encounter with the Atlantic and even though it was a moody day, the sea was flat, calm, and still as an antique mirror - and I was content to inhale the marine air and hear the waves say hello. 

What does travel mean to you? Do you have a favorite mode of transportation?

November 4, 2013

A Royal Blue Story: How I Came To Wear the Rajput Poshak


Rajput poshak: the traditional dress of women of Rajput community in the north-western Indian state, Rajasthan; consists of kanchli (inner-wear with sleeves), waist-length kurta (a sleeveless blouse), ghagra (pleated skirt), and odhna (long, flowing veil).


First, there is the color: blue, royal blue, eye-wateringly blue.

Jodhpur, India, June 2010:

Since I first began blogging in April 2011, the most popular post on my blog, I am Just a Visual Person till date happens to be the one about the Rajput poshak. Glancing at statistics identifying traffic sources bringing visitors to my blog, 'Rajput poshak' often pops up in the list. There are people in Hong Kong, Sweden, United Arab Emirates, and France all turning to the virtual world to learn more about the poshak. Their fascination in turn never fails to fascinate me.

My own preoccupation with the poshak happened only recently. I had grown up seeing women dressed in the poshak whenever I visited my home state, Rajasthan; yet, it was if I was seeing through them, almost as if viewing them upon a mannequin. I only suddenly desired to wear it when I attended a distant cousin's wedding in the summer of 2010 in Jodhpur. During the musical celebrations, I observed that six of his girl cousins had worn the poshak in multiple marriages of color, texture, and shades: turquoise and rose-pink, lime-green and orange, satin and net, and tie and dye and gold-lurex embroidery. When they moved about the wedding grounds, they appeared like sartorial swans, gracefully separate from the rest of us. Later, as they shimmered and shimmied about on the stage amid the faux and real flowers, traditional Rajasthani musical notes seeping into the hot, monsoon-pregnant air, I felt transported into an alternate, genteel reality.

I decided to get a set made for myself.

Unlike the sari, which is recognizably a pan-Indian garment and whose appearance and presentation varies from state to state, the poshak is distinct and indigenous to Rajasthan. While I have never been averse to wearing traditional Indian garments, such as the salwar-kameez [tunic and loose/straight-cut trousers] I never ventured into wearing the sari simply because I had yet not mastered the art of draping it. I publicly declaimed the significance of the sari still continuing to be relevant in contemporary India, unlike, say, the status of the kimono in Japan where it largely held ritual significance. Yet, in private, I hardly wore the sari, perceiving both the act of placing and wearing the sari as cumbersome.

I should also mention that the aforementioned blog-post is not exclusively about the poshak; it is also about the Hindi film, Zubeida (2000), which revolves around a feisty, head-strong Muslim girl, Zubeida who marries a Rajput king, who once ruled a princely state [prior to Independence, India was formerly ruled by British and princely states]. The film is set in newly post-Independent India, where princely rulers were renegotiating their political place in the new social and political order and unlearning to rule. It was therefore a time of metamorphosis and unbreaking rules – and in midst of this, we witness Zubeida transitioning from 50s Bombay saree soiree chic into a Rajput princess, wearing petal-hued chiffons and pearls and gorgeous, elaborate poshak with delicate Rajasthani jewlery.

Was it a yearning for donning the romance of that elegant, bygone era? What I associated with the poshak was a regal elegance and which was easily accessible. For me, it was bit like jigsawing a puzzle together: I simply had to slip into the dual panelled top and the wide, ankle-length skirt and drape the odhna around me – and that was that. Wearing it would make me feel not as much exotic as much as exotically anonymous, as if I had jettisoned off the various layers constituting my identity: Indian, living in Oman, born in Australia, spoke Hindi but dreamt in English. The poshak would wear me and I would wear it: for me, it was the ultimate costume.


July 2011, Jodhpur, India:

The next summer, one of my relatives told me about the best place in town to purchase and have the poshak material tailored. After navigating numerous labyrinthine arteries of alleys in the heart of old Jodhpur, we finally found ourselves facing the facade of a nondescript two-story whitewashed shop. Upon entering the shop, we stood at the edge of a large room entirely covered with acres of fabric in multitude shades and patterns – and dozens of women examining and critiquing them. “What are you looking for?” A slight man in gold-framed spectacles asked me. “A poshak,” I murmured. “What for?” I wondered how exactly to put it that I simply wanted a poshak to dress up in. The last time I had attended a costume party was at university and it was an unoriginal costume even then. Owning this poshak would be the closest thing to dressing up in costume, transforming myself into an aristocratic Rajput lady, apogee of elegance and grace. “I have been wanting to get a set made for quite sometime,” I finally said.

“We sell material for every-day poshaks here...why don't you go up for the more fancy ones?” he said. Upstairs, wherever I looked, I glimpsed stacks of poshaks wrapped up in plastic and sitting behind glass-fronted wall cabinets or laid out on the thin grubby-white cotton-sheeted mattresses; adjacent to the room, there were ceiling-high bales of freshly dyed fabrics in a tiny storeroom. I longed to go there, feast my eyes upon all that gluttony of color. Meanwhile, the noises and smells of the street drifted into the room from the balconies – but they were incidental to the atmosphere, like an irrelevant, random thought.

It did not take me long to purchase my poshak despite the overwhelming buffet of choices offered; the salesman efficiently helped me pick out a chiffon-overlaid satin poshak with net dupatta in royal blue and embroidered with a constellation of golden gota [gold-lurex] buds. Glimpsing the material, I could hardly await its abstraction into the poshak – and how it would feel like to wear it.

As I was leaving the shop, the salesman called out to ask me as to what jewelry I was planning to pair the poshak with. “If you want to bring out the beauty of the dress, you should only wear Rajput jewelry,” he said, directing me to the whimsically named Fancy-stores, where you could buy practically anything to dress up your wrists and hair and hands and fingers. “Will you cover your head? Will you wear bangles? Where will you wear it?” The questions rained down upon me. “I will be wearing it outside of India,” I finally told them. “Good, good,” one of them said, visibly pleased. “The foreigners should know what the Rajput poshak is all about.”

A week later, I got a call from the shop: the poshak was ready. I went and collected the parcel: it was immaculately packaged in cellophane and adorned with a gota bow. I was both reluctant and longing to open it. In the end, it took me almost two years to eventually open the package and wear it. There was never a good enough time or occasion or place to wear it. In the meantime, I had another poshak – burnt pink and gold - tailored for my wedding ceremony, when I would walk around the holy fire seven times and become wedded to my husband. It was my third outfit for the day and when I was changing, I remember feeling disappointed for it fit badly, hanging loosely and vaguely from my frame: it looked like it had been made for another person. Perhaps, it was: memories of that night were a fluid blur, much like the poshak, as I transitioned from one life to another. I have packed it away along with the rest of my other wedding outfits. But the royal blue poshak still awaited its story.


September, 2013: London, United Kingdom

I am at another wedding: my best friend got married a few hours ago in a stately Roman Catholic church. Her bridesmaids and I, the maid of honor, had been identically hued in sea-green saris; now, as we changed for the reception to be held later that night, I reverently unpacked my royal-blue poshak. Slipping it on, tying up the blouse strings and adjusting the skirt, I was relieved that this poshak at least fit me perfectly. As I walked through the avenue of mirrors lining the hotel lobby, I felt like a comet of blue, this surreal Rajput transplant in a wedding reception in a hotel in middle of London. Throughout that night, I felt the glamour of make-believe constantly brush past me, deliciously out of the orbit constituting my normal life.

The reception concluded, as we bid farewell to our newly married friend, one of the hotel staff rushed in, cradling a massive bouquet of chrysanthemums in her hands: they gleamed cold pink, orange, and yellow and she was contemplating what to do with them. My friend and I offered to take them and as we waited outside the hotel for our cab, cradling the mums in my arms and the blue of the odhna threaded in between the stems, I idly reflected that my poshak and the night ceiling mirrored each other, a contented party of mutual admiration.


October, 2013, Pittsburgh, United States:

I am now in my new home. The poshak tidily sits in a package in my suitcase, which houses all my traditional clothes and that I occasionally wear in my life here. Whenever I open the suitcase and the saris and salwar-suits and the poshak come tumbling out, I can't help but feel that it is the equivalent of a dress-up box found in playrooms and drama classes, where you could borrow a quirky shoe or a pink feather boa and assume another self. When I unfold the poshak and lay out its royal blueness upon the terrain of my present life, I see so many things escape its folds and rise in the air: Rajasthan, Rajput princesses, elegance, chic, beauty, and nostalgic texture. The air subsequently becomes charged and heady – and this is why costumes are such necessary things, to remind us that it is good to come out and play every once in a while.


This piece was originally published in the online literary journal, Equals Record's Masks and Costumes issue here

October 25, 2013

Still Lives: Photography Compositions

I have lately acquired two new great loves: baking and still-life compositions. Both require exacting degrees of preciseness, leaving little space for improvisation or dramatic last-minute innovation unless you are sufficiently skilled in the technique to do so. Too little moisture or one more object…the finished product becomes cracked or cluttered. 

 And when everything is perfectly calibrated - taste, texture - it feels…right.

A Leaf in a River

If memory is a river, I continuously cross back and forth to recline upon the banks of nostalgia; these banks are called Oman and Rajasthan and wherever I sit, the river flows...and flows...the leaf simply following the currents.

Walk Treasures
Wherever I walk, I can’t stop myself collecting and preserving the richness I encounter on the ground below: feathers, pebbles, shells, flowers, and leaves. Here are my pickings from my recent walks, reflecting the season falling around me. The only exception is the crimson baby tomato, which I woke up one morning to find sitting exactly where my apartment balcony and air meet. For a while, I reveled in the mystery of this unexpected guest; then, I looked up only to find my neighbor growing tomato plants in the balcony above. What is preferable: the suspense of mystery or relief of mundane knowing-ness? Still pondering…

Fragile Dreams
We all have our - multiple, varied -  dreams tucked away in the secret diaries of our mind… Years later, paging through them, they tumble out, these dessicated, beautiful things, which will threaten to turn into dust at the merest touch.

The Sole Truths of Fashion

A snapshot of my mind: i) reading fashion memoirs - Justine Picardie’s My Mothers Wedding Dress and which I highly recommend and b) visual junkie fix: fashion magazines c) writing about fashion and last but certainly not the least d) shoes carted away all the way from Oman, soul-fix for the feet

October 22, 2013

Of Ghost Clothes and Photographs

Portrait of a Dress (2013)

"Do clothes have ghosts, or do ghosts have clothes? There's no evidence one way or the other, as you might expect: but there are stories, some of which survive long after their telling."

-Ghost Dresses, My Mother's Wedding Dress: The Life and Afterlife of Clothes, Justine Picardie (2006).

I have talked about what clothes represent and signify to me here and as time goes by, my interest in notion of clothes being personal narratives and how they function as markers of different cultures, eras, and societies has further deepened. Of late, I have been on the hunt for compelling fashion writing and so I was pleased to discover Justine Picardie's memoir, My Mother's Wedding Dress: The Life and Afterlife of Clothes. A collection of poetic, beautifully written essays about how fashion (in form of specific items of clothing, literature, and fashion designers) has shaped the author's life, there was one particular essay which particularly intrigued me, Ghost Dresses and whose opening lines I have quoted above. 

It struck me that one of the reasons why I so enjoy looking at vintage photographs of people is to study the clothing/fashions that they are wearing. A few years ago, Scott Schulman had a feature on his blog, The Sartorialist in which he posted and mused about photographs he had found in a box at Chelsea Flea Market; he subsequently invited readers to submit vintage images of their family and friends - and these contributions were portraits in every sense of the word, the clothes bestowing clues about the subjects' quirks, preferences - and indeed, visually encapsulating very much of who they were exactly at that moment. Another incredible resource which I love returning to is Anusha Yadav's Indian Memory Project, which is dedicated to documenting Indian subcontinent's visual and oral history via family archives; as you browse through the images and read the accompanying stories, you will often observe contributors making references to the clothing the subject wears as much as a means of identifying the era in which they were photographed as well as how it enriches the understanding of the subjects and their stories. 

Group portrait of Rajasthani women and children, c.1920 (courtesy Tasveer Journal's exhibition, Subjects and Spaces II)

Lady at Toilette, c.1910 (courtesy: Tasveer Journal's exhibition, Subjects and Spaces I)

The Indian online photography magazine, Tasveer recently published its series, Subjects and Spaces, which dealt with the representation of women in Indian photography between 1850-1950. These two pictures are amongst the many which reflect the conjunction of photography in colonial and newly independent India and the role and presentation of Indian women in that time period. Whether its individual or group portraits, the exhibition gives fascinating insight as to what it meant to be photographed for the women and alternately, how it was to photograph them; whether it is noting the minutiae of the background details or how they posed and with whom or the garments, the underlying subtexts of the photographs are laden with stories.

Dancing, c.1872
I would like to share a story, which is an intersection of vintage photography, fashion, and ghost clothes. Three years ago, I bought a vintage photograph of two (presumably) aristocratic Rajasthani women from a Jodhpur antique store. I browsed through stacks of photographs before finally deciding upon a hand-tinted one of two smiling women posing next to a decorative pillar; they were dressed in lengha-choli, their heads covered. Clearly not just content with introducing color into the women's monochrome lives, the artist also limned their jewelry with glitter, blurring the line between painting and image. I remember thinking that the combination of the image being hand-tinted and vintage meant that the women looked as if they had been photographed underwater. 

I had the photograph framed and packed it in a nest of scraps of old cloth and newspaper and carted it off to Oman; after spending quite some time deciding where to place the photograph in my room, alternating between my desk or my dressing table, I eventually propped it above the rectangular mirror. Whenever I was writing at my desk, I would absently glance at the photograph and eventually, I thought of building a long novella or short novel around these anonymous women: who were they: mother and daughter, posing for a special occasion? Where were they posing and had they worn their special-occasion outfits? How did they feel about posing for a photograph? Had they been in purdah? If so, were they happy to be seen and not invisible, for once? I visualised the photograph being part of the book-jacket, reminiscing in the afterword about it being the visual and direct inspiration for the book.

As weeks passed, I could not pinpoint as to why I started to feel uneasy whenever I looked at the photograph; in turn, I felt that the smiles on the women's faces were less pronounced, conveying a discernible lack of cheer. Even though I valiantly attempted to construct a story around them, it was as if the women in the photograph resisted being written into the narrative.

I eventually decided that I could no longer have the photograph in my room; it was as if neither the women nor I were at peace and we should part ways. I could not bring myself to summarily dispose it in the trash so I decided to consign them to the sea instead. When I went to the beach, I gently placed them in the lap of the sea and prayed for their well-being. Why I did so, I do not know: both the prayers or the act of donating them to the ocean. All I knew that was I stood there and watched them float away in the sea until they gradually disappeared out of my sight.

Do clothes have ghosts, or ghosts have clothes? Some questions will be unanswered...

October 9, 2013

Photo-Essay: Where are you from?

Pittsburgh, United States: A Shell in a Pebble Desert
 Sometimes, I feel like this shell above.

Of late, I have found myself taking a while to aptly respond to the seemingly innocuous question: Where are you from? I can rattle off the bald facts in a jiffy: passport: Indian, born in Australia, raised in and called Oman home for many years, studied in UK in between, and presently living in United States. Yet, these are merely facts: they do not and cannot convey the various homes that I simultaneously belong to and inhabit inside my head. So much so that when I am feeling homesick, I do not know which one particular home it is that I am exactly yearning for; all I know is that I feel groggy, disoriented, as if permanently travelling through assorted time zones. It must be a bit like what this shell landwrecked in a pebble desert in a city of three rivers must feel like at times: dreaming of the sea, waking up instead to the bare, varnished smell of rock and river.

Jodhpur, India: Parallel Lines

Sometimes, I miss sitting cross-legged on a sunlight-warmed sandstone balustrade outside a temple in the nook of a hill and looking down at a pale blue city spread out below.

When I walk through its narrow, labyrinthine streets and look up at the blue - exactly the shade of the sky just before it dissolves into night from day - I am pierced by a peculiar and exact sense of belonging. Behind each of those shuttered doors, there is a story, a person, a smile, a mystery. I want to open all those windows and parachute myself into their lives. However, the truth is that their stories are being birthed in the chaos cluttering the streets below. They sinew into form in the noise (barber-salon chatter, tailor gossip, and street debate), smell of frying kachoris and samosas and jalebis (served from the scalding oil in bowls of newspaper, the grease speckling the surface gray), totems of fruit in fruit-juice stalls, rainbows bottled in fabric and sari shops, and my favorites: the fancily-named Fancy stores, where you can dress up your wrists and hair and hands. I walk below the eaves, observing and remembering and photographing, carefully planting the stories inside my head, a squirrel squirreling food away in preparation for the long winter hibernation ahead. 

Seeb, Oman: Lonesome

Sometimes, I will walk past an abandoned sofa sitting outside its former house - and be reminded of its many siblings whom I have similarly encountered in the different places that I call home.

A sun-bleached, paint-stained sofa, which once held pride of court inside a fisherman's house in Seeb, will connect me to a long, floppy couch adorning a Pittsburgh's student room that I spotted in an inky alleyway one plangent June night. How easily do you find yourself calling a new place your home though, you think, a place that months before had been a mere name in your head, bereft of any associations - and now, when you see the name, Pittsburgh, it is already studded with markers of memories. A sofa = memory bridge: moments which tell you that perhaps you can be in two places at once.  

London, United Kingdom: Neatly Stacked

Sometimes, I am the person outside, looking inside; sometimes, I am inside, looking outside.

Does the inside become the outside/the outside metamorphosing into the inside? I have stopped thinking about from where I am looking; perhaps, it does not even matter as to where I am standing upon either. In my head, home, or rather, homes, have become akin to a set of revolving doors: simply step out and see what lies ahead when and where it opens for you.


I have told you where I am from. Where are you from?

September 27, 2013

Vanishing Mountainscapes of Muscat

Mountainscape at Fanja

As I was nostalgically browsing through photographs of a family visit we took to Sifah village during my recent trip to Oman, I thought of the serpentine road that thrillingly twists and curves through mountains, hills, and lagoons before finally bringing one to Sifah's serene shores. I have previously been to Sifah and it was a joy to re-encounter the journey, each turn revealing a memory-worthy sight: numerous goats slumbering beneath a 4WD, a sprightly green-plumed tree with exposed cat's cradle of roots, a surreal fashion marriage: a woman dressed in leopard-spotted Omani traditional tunic, magenta trousers, and three-inch heels, and...the undulating mountains, grazing the cloudless blue sky. And indeed, now, when I am thousands of miles away from the terrains of familiar, when I think of Oman, the mountains  immediately catapult into my mind: boldly, starkly, and distinctly.

While I undoubtedly yearn for the sea, what I now realise is that while I had to make a trip to experience it, the mountains formed an integral part of my immediate visual landscape. If the sea was a volatile, temperamental entity, the mountains were constant and consistent in their there-ness. Whenever I rose in the morning and went up to my bedroom window, the mountains loomed in the distance, chameleon-like changing color over the day before entirely disappearing in the black of the night - to comfortingly appear once again the following morning. Wherever we drove, the mountains were omnipresent and so unrelentingly variegated that I became blase about such beauty in our midst. Just as one would trace patterns in the clouds, we would discuss about what animal or character an unusually shaped mountain resembled. Whether one was ascending the mountains or just wandering around at their base on a hot summer dusk, it was a raw, primeval experience, life's grievances and issues appearing so petty and trivial in face of such silent grandness. 

Jabal Shams

How much I took this geological gorgeousness for granted! It never once occurred to me that it too would fall prey to the scourge of erasure. A couple of posts ago, I had spoken about losing valuable architecture landmarks, which served as reflectors of their time and era. Even before I had left Oman and moved to the States, I had been witness to mountains in Muscat area gradually being cut away in order to make room for constructing apartment buildings, homes, and offices. Eight months later on, I have been further saddened to see the extent of the destruction of this valuable geological heritage. The mountains bore visible wounds, where they had been severely gouged away and in rare instances, they were on verge of disappearing; the effect was visually unpleasing as well as jarring. 

Local media and concerned environmentalists have generated sufficient debate about this subject; it was their efforts which made me pay attention to an issue that I encountered on a daily basis but whose ramifications I had yet not yet acknowledged. I recall reading a phrase which mentioned that while one can potentially regrow forests,* it is not possible to do so with mountains. When you are swiftly slicing away a mountain, you are cutting away a millennia's worth of geological narrative: the movements, shifts, and transformations which resulted in the mountain being of the texture, color, and shape it is. When you excise it from the landscape, you are erasing a visual marker as well as a geological time-capsule.

Jabal Shams again

For me, mountains along with the sea and distinctive architecture constitute Muscat; its particular topography and terrain specifically shapes its identity and individuates it from the assembly-line faux Manhattans in other parts of the region and world, even. Urban spaces are dynamic and arguably need to be so; however, it is my earnest wish that changes and development occur sustainably and not at the cost of diluting the essence of any place.

May the slumbering geological giants rest in peace...

*This is an opinion post based on my recent observations of Muscat*

** Studies have indicated that regrowing a forest requires many decades and it may taken even longer for the surrounding landscape to regain its native identity - rampant deforestation thus translates into entirely reshaping the natural character of the land

September 25, 2013

Aquarium Walk: Gemstone Gallery

It was an aquarium that had once lived. Now, it was just a menagerie of multiple glass cages inhabited by ossified marine creatures. I walked slowly through the aquarium: the walls were black and unyielding, like the color of beneath-water. What was it like to live there? I peered through the looking glass: the water had long evaporated away, leaving behind aquarium-wrecked shells of creatures, unaware of my presence. They sat there, iridescent, glossy, and beautiful, models in a shoot awaiting to be photographed and collaged into magazine narratives. 

 A phantom sea-urchin, a pearl waiting to be plucked from an oyster, and a popsicle coral reef: I swam with my feet and my eyes but could not touch them. They were not poisonous, it was just forbidden to do so. Inside, they lay there, being looked at and yet, unable to look back. 

I stood there at junction of the aquaria, watching them being refracted in the mirrors and glass. In the mirror, when I touched the aquariums’ glass, I could feel the warmth suddenly seeping into my fingerprints. And then: the sea started to sing its song and the colors became alive, no longer cosmetic. If I closed my eyes, I could hear submarine whisperings - and the place no longer seemed as melancholy or lonely anymore. 

Black became white: the sum of all colors. 


This post also appears on my other blog, Photo Kahanis


September 18, 2013

Stories of a Historical Theatre: Nagaur Fort, Rajasthan

A few months ago, I had the opportunity of interacting with a superlatively talented Australian water-color artist, Jason Roberts via Instagram; even a cursory look at his blog is sufficient to gauge the beauty of his works. Having noticed one of my IG posts about Rajasthan and whose nuances he has so exquisitely captured in his own paintings, we began talking and the subject turned to Nagaur, which is about 135km from Jodhpur. Frankly speaking, apart from the fact that my mother once lived and studied there and that Liz Hurley had a rather lavish sangeet [musical] celebrations at the Nagaur's Ahhichatragarh  fort, I did not know much else. However, Jason's descriptions about the fort and his experiences at the annual Nagaur cattle fair  enchanted me - and it so happened that my various meanderings in Rajasthan few weeks ago coincidentally brought me to Nagaur.

As towns go, I could not help thinking that Nagaur represented the quintessential small Rajasthani town; the Nagaur fort, on the other hand, is an entirely different and distinct affair. Initially, having seen only interior shots of the fort, I was somehow anticipating an imposing, looming presence, much the way Jodhpur's Meherangarh fort dominates and indeed, defines Jodhpur's skyline. The Nagore fort however is tucked inside the town; it is only when you enter the premises that you realise its scope and that it indeed is a formidable presence in itself.

Aerial image of Nagaur fort taken from Rajesh Bedi's book, Rajasthan: Under the Desert Sky

We visited on a blisteringly hot August afternoon and yet, the heat and the lancet-sharp sunlight eventually could not deter us from appreciating the fort in its full splendor. The moment we entered the fort complex via the gardens, I at once felt far removed from the world beyond. I must add that I do not always feel this way in all historical structures and places; at times, so overloaded are they with excesses of modern-day tourism that they are reduced to parodies of their original selves or other times, they are mired in so much neglect and decay that it is impossible to grasp the grand and exciting structures they had once been. Nagaur fort too had been prey to the latter and it is gentle, thoughtful and careful restoration in the past few years that has led to Nagaur fort being the emblem of romance and history that it is today.

As we roamed through the complex with an informative guide in tow, it was not difficult to flesh the fort into the personality that it once was. Here, a hundred niches became ablaze with individual diyas during the night, the earth having swallowed the nocturnal sky in its midst; there, Akbar had once stayed in this mahal [chambers] Inside this arched pavilion, you were in the heart of the fort and surrounded by numerous fountains, pools, and water-channels in which fort denizens swam and frolicked. Thanks to assiduous water harvesting techniques, the fort was able to enjoy the pleasures of water despite being in so conspicously arid environment.

Pavilion of Arches


As we wandered from the outside garden of filigree marble beauty, symmetrical arches, and paint-play of shadows into the chambers, we experienced both a relief from the heat as well as admittance to an interior garden of sorts. In the silence and coolth, as we admired the gorgeously detailed ceilings, the simultaneously functional and aesthetic water-fountains, and the minimalist elegance of the arches and niches, I could not help but admire the effort invested in the restoration of the fort and which made it one of the twenty nominees for the Agha Khan award for Architechure as well as being the recipient of other conservation efforts. These efforts have been responsible for the re-presentation of the Nagaur fort, highlighting it as an architectural and historical landmark as well as restablishing its context in contemporary times; for instance, it plays stage to the World Sufi Spirit festival, its nocturnal avatar lending the fort with yet another performative dimension. 

Dancing Ceiling

The Green Room

In one of the queen's chambers, every inch of the wall was covered with paintings documenting the minituaie of their daily life; what they performed within the walls was mirror-reflected upon those very surfaces. For them, it was like living with family photographs: familiar and loved. For us, the amateur historian attempting to fill empty rooms with headful of stories, they were valuable glimpses into their lives, making it easier for the rooms to be a theatre in which we could imagine dialogues, monologues, and discussions reverberating in the origami of dust and light and shadows.

Alas, we had only a hour to spare for the fort visit and it was time to bid farewell; as we walked towards the gate, which would lead us out of the fort and into the everyday burly of the world, I turned around - and glimpsed this sight below:

Many centuries ago, the fort inhabitants must have glanced up to witness this very same sight - and here I was, studying the same sky, the eagles surveying me from above; the people had changed, the structure had not. It struck me how crucial it is that we view historical buildings in continuum with our present, rather than seeing them as fossils. On our way to Nagaur, we had stopped in the town of Sujangarh and wended our way through the arteries of the older part. We passed by many a traditional haveli, with doors, windows, and facade replete - only to encounter ugly, empty wounds in which a haveli had been demolished and a plastic, hollow toybox of a mall replacing it. Would these havelis that I admired be still standing there if I were to return in a year's time? I fear that I may not see them again. If we can figure out how to make these structures relevant to our contemporary lives, we can simply integrate them into the matrix of stories, rather than erasing them away altogether until future generations would not even know that they existed in the first place.