Friday, March 2, 2012

Shveta Thakrar - Domythic South Asia

Artist Niroot Puttapipat has illustrated a gorgeous version of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. This illustration is for Quatrain 70 -
Indeed, indeed, Repentance oft before
I swore - but was I sober when I swore?
And then and then came Spring, and Rose-in-hand
My thread-bare Penitence apieces tore.

Tonight's blog is written by guest blogger, Shveta Thakrar. Many thanks to her!

At the Sirens Conference in 2010, young adult fantasy author Malinda Lo pointed out that cultural exchanges have taken place throughout history and indeed are necessary for a civilization to survive. As the saying goes, the only constant is change. Language, food, fashion--without a constant trade of fresh ideas and new ways of being, cultures become stagnant and die. It only turns problematic when the "exchange" becomes one-sided, when instead of a relationship based on mutual respect, one party preys upon the other, seeing the latter as a cave to be mined for shiny objects while impressing its own values and notions of beauty and correctness on the latter. In other words, colonialism.

Let's take a moment to imagine South Asia. Picture its vibrant colors, sumptuous fabrics, and sparkling jewels. Consider its rich epics and lush lore, its lavishly dressed rajas and ranis of old, its elephants and peacocks, snakes and tigers. Envision the Hindu and Buddhist panoply of deities lovingly depicted in both art and ritual. See yourself before the fine architecture of the Muslims, the most well-known example being that dazzling wonder of the world, the Taj Mahal. Seat yourself before a steaming plate of food, complex and layered with spices as delicious to look at as to eat, and feast your eyes on it.

Sounds beautiful, doesn't it? Fancy and mysterious and--gasp!--exotic! However, as tempting as it is to think of "the exotic East," it's a fallacy. South Asia is made up of a number of smaller cultures and regions, each made up in turn of people with their own identities and languages and philosophies. People who struggle and prosper and live and love, who run businesses or treat patients or paint and sculpt and dance. People who don't all believe or want the same thing. South Asians are people like any other. Not only is Western influence becoming more and more a force in their lives, making the above romantic vision less and less accurate every day, but for them, the things listed above are just life, the same way celebrating Thanksgiving and going to prom are everyday occurrences in North America.

What I'm trying to say is, when decorating in a South Asian style, we can't forget to remember the people behind the seemingly romantic exterior. It's extremely important that care be taken when choosing what elements to use, because unfortunately, the current cultural exchange in the world is not equal. Western culture has found is way nearly everywhere, but the reverse is not true. I personally believe domythic decorating can help bridge this gap, but we ned to be mindful in order for that to happen.

In decorating on an international level, we need to make sure we know what we are using and why. For instance, if someone or something is considered sacred or endangered in some way, we should give a great deal of thought to whether we really need to use it. (Think the image of the god Ganesh on commercially produced flip-flops, something considered profane to Hindus, as shoes are unclean.) We must remember that the folklore and traditions are very much alive for the people they belong to, and they're not just toys for our amusement. Also, when we buy, why not do so in a way that properly compensates the people who made our products?

With all that in mind, let's talk decorating! When I was growing up, my mother filled our house in Texas with beautiful objects like metal plates engraved with peacocks. We had cloth paintings of scenes from the Mahabharata, such as Lord Krishna dancing with the gopis (cowherdesses), of lovers sitting together in swings.

Krishna with Gopis, painting from the Smithsonian, via Wikipedia.

Statues of the gods and lovers Radha and Krishna stood tall in corners, Krishna playing his flute. Stairwells were bright with colorfully embroidered wall hangings dotted with tiny mirrors in the Rajasthani style. Metal elephants rested on curio shelves (except when they somehow became my playthings). Torans hung over doorways, their bells swishing when a tall person walked from room to room.

A gorgeous example of a Toran, from Flickr.

Carved copper bowls shone on tables, and round copper lamps lit the living room, their light gleaming through multicolored tiny panes. A huge black chest encrusted with stones in beautiful designs was one of my favorite things to open and play with.

Now, in my own Victorian Dollhouse, I have a one-string mobile of elephants in bold colors. Torans in various sizes, shapes, and colors adorn doorways and windows.

Shveta's beautiful home.

I'm Hindu, and my husband is Buddhist, so we've hung up an assortment of deities on the walls. As a wedding gift, my grandmother bought us sheets for our bed, a gorgeous dark red satin with a vivid blue peacock motif. Less fancy but wonderfully comfortable is my cotton blanket, called an ajrak, from the desert area of Kutch where my great-grandmother's house stood prior to the earthquake of 2001.
An elaborate Ajrak on Ebay.

I'm a collector of lotuses and have lotus-shaped candle holders. My husband acquired a set of carved wooden furniture from the state of Kashmir, which is impatiently awaiting reupholstery. I hope to add a set of these poufs to the mix as time and money allow.

I also really, really want this nagini door handle for my future writing room.

Speaking of words, literature is a wonderful place for inspiration, particularly since we're talking about myth. Try the Mahabharata, an incredibly intricate epic tale about five brothers and their war with their cousins. Find out how Queen Kunti came to bear these sons, or how Draupadi came to marry all five. Or try the Ramayana, another epic. Familiarize yourself with the story of Sita and Rama, how the city of Ayodhya was lost and then won again, and the various retellings thereof. Enjoy fables older than Aesop's in the collection called Panchatantra. Read the same comic versions of history and stories I did as a child: Amar Chitra Katha. That's how I learned about Birbal and how he saved the mango tree from quarreling neighbors Rama and Shama. Definitely read South Asian fairy tales!

Check out history books and biographies and get a feel for the place and its past and present. Ever heard of Phoolan Devi, the bandit queen? Learn about the many types of South Asian fey, some of whom are part of the various religions. Listen to traditional and modern South Asian music. Research the instruments used to make it, some of which are no longer in use. Watch Bollywood old and new, Indian art movies, and modern Indian TV for ideas of what South Asia actually looks like. Pick up a cookbook by Madhur Jaffrey or Tarla Dalal and prepare dishes from different regions. Look at the vessels used both before and now.

If you have friends or family from any part of South Asia, look around their houses. What sorts of mythic objects do they keep, if anything? What tales can they recount? Myth, after all, is a reflection of those who tell it, a record of our hearts. It remembers for us how we survived, rejoiced, grieved, loved, and of course, grew. And that is certainly international in scope.


  1. Thanks for sharing all this, Shveta. My own decor is not nearly so well thought out -- it's better to be conscious of your choices.