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.