February 27, 2014

Phipps Conservatory: Where Botany Meets Art

In my last post, I mentioned how much I had enjoyed reading Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things, which chronicles the life of a nineteenth century woman botanist, Alma Whittaker and especially tied in with the fact that that my mother too happens to be a botanist. While growing up in Oman, though, surrounded as I was by a lively garden and well, botanical talk, I wasn't particularly an enthusiastic budding (pun unintended!) botanist. I loved collecting and identifying rocks and shells and even attempted bird-watching but - plants

However, I then began reading a column about desert plants of Arabia in a weekly Dubai magazine in which an enthusiastic amateur botanist would report details of her weekend expeditions into the desert, presenting her findings as notes from her diary - and having been an avid diarist since the age of eight, I too was compelled to unmask the desert of its seeming barrenness and document all that thrived within it. I even bought the book the columnist had written about desert plants, absorbing all that she had to say in great detail about the various plant species and when and where they happened to grow; later, whenever we would go out into the interior, I would diligently seek to locate and identify these plants and later on, jot down these findings, occasionally accompanied by sketches. Yet, say, unlike rocks, of which there were multiple varieties and Oman being one giant, fecund rock garden, we were in a desert, after all, and there were only so many plant species that my child-mind could find and examine. Needless to say, the plant mania wore off quickly.

Ever since then, I have always keenly observed the foliage surrounding me wherever I have happened to live but I have never been driven to identify the species; I am simply content with the diverse greenness encircling me rather than worrying about the specificity of the greenness! 

Nevertheless, the botanical genes endure and soon after arriving in Pittsburgh and spotting the shiny glass world of the Phipps Conservatory, I immediately wanted to pay a visit - but the opportunity only came a few days ago.

I visited the Conservatory on a relatively warm, sunny day but I can easily imagine what an escape and respite it must be to enter this glass-enclosed world bursting with so much green and plenitude while the world outside is snow-blanketed, silent and seemingly dead. As we roamed from one room to another, it was indeed quite easy to forget the world outside and immerse ourselves in this parallel botanical universe. In this museum of plants, I could not help but marvel at both nature's artistry and diversity which was at display: numerous varieties of orchids, cocoa trees with their fat yellow pods, mosses (I paid attention, thanks to Alma's meticulous meditations upon on the subject!) dozens of cacti and faux flower succulents, and the bonsai trees, assiduously trained to micro perfection. In the beginning, I did dutifully study the names of the plant species and their stories - but after a while, I simply lost myself to the revitalising sight of all that green, a balm for the eyes after months of glimpsing the austere winter landscape.

Here are some photo notes...


In Full Bloom
Perhaps, thanks to the inner-desert girl in me, the Desert room happened to my favorite what with the desert landscape yielding a huge variety of cacti, some enormous while others almost akin to sculptural art. I particularly liked the faux flower succulents, such as the one above; I forgot to take a picture of it but there was a lovely melange of botany and art in the form of a Christmas-tree shaped piece composed entirely of a family of succulents.

When we entered the Bonsai room, we were greeted with a pan of tiny pebbles; we were then asked to grab a handful of pebbles and place them inside glass jars standing next to the various trees. The trees with the most pebbles would be deemed the favorites. I personally thought all of them were fascinating although I have ambivalent feelings about so severe and stylised a manner in which a tree's growth is restricted or in bonsai parlance, trained.

Glass Explorers: Longfellows, Hans Godo Frabel (2009)

Crystallised Sun: Desert Gold, Dale Chihuly (2007)
Throughout the Conservatory, I spotted numerous stunning glass sculptures and installations juxtaposed alongside the plants, such as these examples above in the Orchid and Desert Rooms respectively. I thought it was such an innovative approach to breathing new life and character into the glass works, uprooting them from the white cubes of a gallery or a museum's minimal environs and literally transplanting them into this garden. These works in turn transformed the conservatory to an even more magical and enchanted place, an unique and exciting example of a partnership between botany and art...

Have you visited a conservatory? What were your experiences like?

February 25, 2014

Essay in Jaggery journal: Finding Home in Madonna Inn

Lighted Up, Madonna Inn
It happens sometimes: I enter a space and find myself instantaneously transported to past selves and worlds. It had been an idyllic January day; my husband and I had spent the entire morning and afternoon cruising down the Pacific Coastal Highway, which offered wholesome views wherever and whenever we looked. My camera slideshow revealed one postcard-perfect picture after another: foam-flecked jade seas; ancient, regal cypress trees; cerulean blue skies; and finally, an icy, fiery sunset at a beach where a family of elephant seals had congregated to celebrate the day’s conclusion. Newly married and having moved to the United States just a month ago, I was still dealing with the residue of cultural jetlag; this holiday was a perfect break. 

As we sped through the darkness en route to Santa Barbara, I marveled aloud at the visual treasures the day had offered us. In search of a caffeine and sugar fix, we stopped at Madonna Inn, having heard much about its quirky interiors and rooms. As we walked across the parking lot, I could still smell the sea in my hair and hear the wind swirling around me as if I was inside a conch shell. However, as soon as I stepped inside the hotel, the day’s postcards vanished from my mind. Surrounded by hot pink walls, ornate gold mirrors, massive chandeliers, and rainbow grapes, I found myself in a much-frequented haunt of my childhood: the interior of an eighties/nineties Hindi film.

 In an essay entitled “Home Stretch” in Elle magazine (June 2013), Courtney Hodell pertinently writes about the significance of a house/home in her life: “a house and its objects are a cup to contain our liquid, uncertain selves.” The objects that adorn our coffee tables and the art that hangs on our walls collectively contribute to transforming our spaces. They are unique to our personalities—spatial fingerprints. We perform many selves, donning different personalities for different people and occasions. The interiors of our homes are the theaters for these performances, and we rely on props in form of books, paintings, and knick-knacks to present this gamut of protean selves.

 My fascination with these performative spaces began during childhood, growing up in the Persian Gulf during the late eighties and early nineties. My family subscribed to a daily Dubai-based newspaper, Khaleej Times; it came a day late across the border, and my brother and I used to fight over who would read its children’s magazine, Young Times, first. They also published a weekend magazine, which came out on Fridays and was simply called Weekend, featuring a motley assortment of syndicated articles from British women’s magazines, columns chronicling the Dubai social scene, and ghost stories. I spent many hours poring over the sections on home interiors, for both their visual appeal and the stories of those who inhabited these spaces.

These columns usually featured homes deemed outstanding in terms of layout, design, and decor/styling in United Arab Emirates, usually belonging to expatriate residents. I studied the photographs and read about how the owners assembled the variegated objects and paintings and furniture to create their homes, which often appeared to be portmanteau versions of those they had left behind. I wondered if our home would ever be featured in that column. Which stories would our rooms perform through their accessories—my mother’s Rajasthani miniature paintings, framed vintage family photographs, sculptures of Hindu deities, Czech crystal bon-bons? I closely inspected how people chose to dress up their homes. I created portraits of their lives from the contents of their rooms, inventorying all the journeys they took before coming and setting up their homes there. 

The houses I visited generally bore a trademark Persian Gulf look: brocade upholstered sofas, Arabian carpets, plenty of crystal and glass, gold accents. They tended toward excess and lavishness, the extent of which varied depending on personal tastes and inclinations. These homes were my address for familiarity, just as the homes depicted in the eighties/nineties Hindi films we watched were immediately familiar as well, despite my distance from India. The Hindi films claimed citizenship in the country of Kitsch: sprawling bungalows, mismatched furniture, carpets, wallpaper, paintings, and faux metal knick-knacks. The sets did not aspire to authentic representation; rather, the goal was to create a fantastical, escapist reality, far removed from the mundaneness of ordinary lives. The more I reflected upon it, was it not a similar case with the homes I encountered in the Middle East? The rooms emulated Bollywood as an ode to the homeland, while the d├ęcor, the ambience, and general visual appearance were carefully cultivated and curated to reflect an aspirational Middle Eastern lifestyle. These houses were ornate and grand, an interesting coexistence of nostalgic narratives of home and interpretations of the current life away from home. The constructed excess of both the homes in films and the ones in which we watched them contributed to and, indeed, constituted my understanding of interior design at that time. 

Hindi films from the nineties arguably did not distinguish themselves in most aspects of filmmaking, and aesthetics and design were certainly no exception. Anyone who has watched Bollywood film from that era can testify that detailed attention to art direction was a great rarity, barring a few exceptions, such as Yash Chopra’s Lamhe (1991). In that decade, set design was, more often than not, incidental to the narrative, a mere backdrop. It was not until Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) that Karan Johar, the auteur of aesthetics, fine-tuned art direction. His singular attention to visual elements in his filmmaking made design as much a matter of priority as the appearance of Kareena Kapoor or Kajol. Later films follow this trend: in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas (2002), critics observe that the director consciously constructed operatic backdrops in consonance with the film’s high-octave notes. In an interview with leading Indian women’s magazine Femina (July 2002), the film’s costume designer Neeta Lulla revealed how she meticulously calibrated the color palette of Aishwarya Rai’s saris so that it would mesh with the film’s vividly colored sets. 

As Hindi films increasingly subscribe to the grammar of authenticity and/or conscious kitschiness in productions such as Dabangg (2010) or Himmatwala (2013), Hindi television programming seems to have assumed the baton of theatrics instead. In recent years, Hindi-language television producers have spent significant amounts of money on recreating rural Rajasthan, urban Gujarat, and miniature villages. Often, while watching shows such as Gulaal or Balika Vadhu, I wonder what it would be like to wander the sets of these shows. Each sought to recreate so accurate a cultural milieu that it was impossible to distinguish the ersatz from the authentic. 

Can watching these television shows and films assuage feelings of homesickness? Do new immigrants adorn their surroundings with as many reminders of home as possible, creating a shrine of nostalgia and yearning? When I first left home and moved to the United Kingdom for my undergraduate studies, one of the first things I did was drape a lime green and maroon embroidered Kashmiri shawl upon the chair of my bare, matchbox-sized room. The shawl had belonged to my mother when she traveled from India to Australia many years ago to pursue her graduate studies, and now it injected the room with color, my mother, and home. 

When I was growing up, I engaged with India through the sense of home created from Hindi films. Sitting in my living room in Oman, I conjured up notions of how my homeland and its people looked by peeking into the sets of their living rooms and bedrooms. Though I visited India annually, the first days back always seemed tinged with a cinematic unreality, as if I was no longer a spectator and had stepped inside a film. As my body adapted to the change in time zones, I felt my mind reconciling to the truth that we were in the depths of real India, not the manufactured one in the films I had been accessing all this time. 

The Internet revolution has brought us closer to one another than ever. The same nostalgia is perhaps no longer applicable since I can Skype with my loved ones every day. If I am homesick for the sights and sounds of my country, I experience it through audio-visual clips; if I am hungry for comfort food, the Indian grocery store is just around the corner. The homeland is no longer so remote. Perhaps only now can our homes be tabula rasas, liberated from becoming shrines to the past. 

As I walked around Madonna Inn, I intuitively viewed it through the prism of the familiar. It was maximalism, theatrics, and kitsch; it could easily have been a bungalow uprooted from a Hindi film or the Gulf and transplanted to California. I had not expected to return home in this hotel thousands of miles away. For that brief moment, I had fallen, Alice-like, through a black hole and tumbled into a fantastical, yet familiar, land. 


This essay was originally published in Jaggery Issue 2

February 17, 2014

Notes from February: Mines of Inspiration

What has been inspiring me this February?

The random, the personal, the political, the literary...

One Billion Rising for Justice:

One Billion Rising for Justice's call also echoed in Pittsburgh, where I witnessed an improvisational dance performance, the reading of Eve Ensler's 'Man Prayer', activist poetry, and a moving call for justice for Charmaine Pfender, who was convicted at age of 19 in 1984 for defending herself against rape. The event reverberated with infectious, incredible energy and raising awareness about a cause that we must be continually mindful of and work towards accomplishing every day: demanding an end to violence against women and girls.

A Little Boy's Wish:

On my way home from the bus on Valentine's Day, I got caught chatting to a little boy called Nathaniel. He was rummaging through his Valentine's Day goodies, which included an Elmo card from his teacher, red Hershey kisses, a pink fruit drink called Hugs which he said "didn't taste of a hug...just water" and this heart-shaped lollipop. Just as I was about to get off at my stop and was saying goodbye to him, his mother, and younger sister, he gifted me this lollipop. "This is for you- Happy Valentines Day!" I couldn't help sharing this story on my personal social media net-works to tell him: Happy Valentine's Day to you too, Nathaniel for your adorable gesture and spreading the love!


Several times while walking around Miami, I chanced upon this unusual sight: shoes tied together and hanging from the wires, as if they had fallen from the sky and the wires had arrested their fall. I wondered what it was: an urban shrine? Street installation art? A quick google search revealed that this is called shoe flinging or shoefiti...there are many stories and explanations behind this occurrence so have a look if you're interested to find out further! I was just fascinated by how these seemingly random sights are actually part of a larger, dynamic and ever expanding urban narrative and universe...

The Signature of All Things

My best friend gifted me a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir, Eat, Pray, and Love few years ago - and I particularly enjoyed accessing her voice, her distinctive turn of phrase, which was witty, elegant, and joyfully executed. I then read her meditation upon marriage, Committed but I never got around to reading any of her fiction. As a daughter of a botanist, I was therefore intrigued to read her latest work, a novel, The Signature of All Things; suffice to say, as soon as I started reading it, the memoir-writer Gilbert swiftly receded away and I became engrossed in the life and thoughts of nineteenth century botanist, Alma Whittaker, whose life is shaped by two central forces in her life: passion and the desire to know. Whether its substantially expanding my knowledge of mosses or getting a portrait of Tahiti or thinking about the explosion of scientific discovery and innovation that occurred in the late nineteenth century, this has been one of the few novels in recent times that I was compelled to read again as soon as I was finished reading it the first time.

"I’m having a hard time trusting in The Process."
“What process?”
“The process that says if I do my part, everything will turn out right.”

I am probably a little tardy in discovering this incredible website showcasing photo-narratives of NYCers but it's swiftly become my new favorite site to browse or dip into whenever I have a moment or two on my hands. With a single evocative image and often few lines (sometimes just even one sentence!) of accompanying quotes, you become drawn into the life-orbits of the people that populate his site. 

What has been inspiring you of late?

February 11, 2014

The Wall Project: The Wynwood Walls, Miami

"Sunday-musings: inside a snow paperweight, watching it cancel out light, sound, color, movement..."

I tweeted the above yesterday, staring outside my apartment window as the snow gaily danced and whirled about while blanketing the world white and whiter. Watching snow fall is undeniably a beautiful experience yet I am not a particular admirer of its aftermath, as in how it blanks out the world and renders it so austere and stark. I realised I have as a result become color-starved, my eyes constantly searching out for vivid splashes of color amid this monochrome landscape. In fact,  come to think of it, the winter has infiltrated even the clothes that I wear or the vegetables that I cook. They mirror the season's icy hued-palette: gray sweaters and dusty pink blouses or coldly colored deep purple and green eggplants and courgettes, like the depths of a winter pond.

Having escaped the heart of the Pittsburgh winter to Florida recently, I can't tell you how much I enjoyed basking in the sunlight or endlessly staring into the blueness of the skies before losing myself in Miami's sunny, colorful streets: the pistachio-and raspberry trimmed Art Deco hotels, cobalt blue art-installations silhouetted against the vivid blue sky, cheerfully-hued beach dresses studding boutiques, and last but certainly not the least, the color fest that was Wynwood Art district.

As soon as you enter the space of the Wynwood Art district, it's akin to walking around an open air art gallery, which constantly demands your attention and engagement with the surroundings. We encountered  funky boutiques and shops, incredible array of wall-art, unusual sights such as a pair of shoes entwined in the electric wires, as if someone casually tossed them into the air and they got entangled there, and a eclectic bunch of people watching art and in turn, being watched and watching others. At a coffee-shop, as we sat around a tree which had a tire festooned with lights and sparrows shared table-space with us, snacking on pie crumbs, I noticed a group arguing about art, a man rapidly filling one page after another of his sketch book, and two women comparing each other's shoes: glittery flats and lepoard-print loafers. The air of the place was as colorful as its temporary guests and environment.

We strolled around the district and then encountered The Wynwood Walls, which brings together one of the greatest collections of street art; it's filled with iridiscently hued and painted walls, doors, and intriguing examples of giant boulders covered with knitted art. Needless to say, it presented the perfect confluence of walls, street art, and above all, color for me: a visual feast, indeed...and I could not stop admiring and photographing it all. 

And with that, I shall say no more and let these walls speak for themselves....

Stripes and Shadows: A wall outside an art gallery

Color-maze: a wall at the Wynwood Walls

Exit: an intriguing faux flower wall installation at Wynwood Walls

Eyed: one of the multiple examples of spectacular wall art

Glasses on a Diet: A funky wall

Have you ever visited a place which you have found instantly energising and inspirational?

February 5, 2014

Flash Photo-Narrative: Frozen Birthday Cake

The early morning light transports all that it touches into the realm of magical. Is this a mere white cube topped with metal spikes or a displaced art-installation from an art-gallery? Or is it actually a frozen uncut birthday cake, the candles resolutely still standing away, long blown silent, wishes made and received?

In this light, anything is possible.


February 2, 2014

Paper Art

What happens when a Macy star and a pipe-smoking fish meet:

Rockstar Fish

Having migrated from Japan to Pittsburgh, a lonely pink origami bird finds a friend in a bough which was otherwise restlessly cartwheeling through life :

An Angry Cloud, A Flying Bird and a Tree