Over the river and through the streets
To the Brooklyn Museum we went
Past buses and bikes and trucks and cars
For a mu-si-cal event.....
I do apologize - the heat and humidity do strange things to the brain. But let’s move on, shall we, to safer - and saner - territory?
Rrrii....well, most of the time. Actually, I cannot truthfully tell, because, like most other Manhattanites who are ensconced in their Manhattan-centric cocoons, I rarely venture out of my little island borough to explore the offerings of the outer boroughs of my city (see what I mean? calling them the outer boroughs?).
But a couple of days back we did, my husband and I. I had read about an exhibition on Vishnu that was on at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and as one of the events organized as part of the exhibition, there was to be a “jazz-flavored” Carnatic music performance at the museum. I sweet-talked my husband into coming along, and so it was that we found ourselves behind a long line of cars inching their way into the exit for the Brooklyn Bridge. Must be all those Brooklynites returning home from work or an evening out in Manhattan, we told each other. Back to an early night at home, the poor things, because what could they possibly have to do, late in the evening, in Brooklyn?!
We drove through the lively, cheerily-lit streets of Brooklyn and soon came upon the majestic Grand Army Plaza at the entrance to Brooklyn’s answer to Central Park, Prospect Park. Both of us gasped at the sight - it was every bit as grand and commanding as India Gate in New Delhi, or the Arc du Triomphe in Paris. The next several minutes were spent circling the streets in search of a parking spot, a quest any denizen of any city anywhere in the world, is all too well-acquainted with.
Lady Luck smiled upon us. The parking gods aligned their stars flawlessly in a perfectly orchestrated dance of car-out, car-in. A few minutes later, we gasped again - this time at the sight of the Brooklyn Museum’s magnificent building with its soaring columns and beautiful carvings across the top, the 19th century Beaux-Arts structure blending in seamlessly with the 21st century glass-enclosed entrance. But there was no time to stop and stare. We were already a few minutes late.
Inside the museum, the scene looked like a festive indoor carnival. The lobby teemed with people and echoed with the sounds of laughter and animated chatter. The museum was free and open to the public until late, as part of its Target Free Saturdays program. There were people of every color there, in keeping with the wonderful diversity of Brooklyn’s population. It was so heartening to see a large proportion of young people, and I had to smile at their infectious enthusiasm and excitement. And I could not help but compare the scene with that at one of my favorite museums in New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met is an amazing place, one that I have visited time and time again, alone, with my parents, with my husband and children, with assorted visitors to New York. It is an immense, sprawling space, and there are still parts of the museum that I have not seen.
But, a quick and thoroughly unscientific (and possibly highly inaccurate) assessment of the demographics of the Met reveals that the visitors are largely white (even the tourists, with the exception of the Japanese and Koreans, and more recently, the Chinese), the youngsters are mostly schoolchildren who have been brought there as part of a school trip, and black and brown-skinned people are regrettably rare. The Met, with its earnestly pedantic mien smacks of a certain elitism, whether it means to or not. It is a place for hushed, scholarly contemplation of the world’s art treasures. By contrast, the crowds at the Brooklyn Museum were anything but hushed and scholarly. Their enjoyment of the art was loud and joyous.
We entered the performance space, where the recital had already begin. It was jammed with people - sitting on chairs, on the floor, leaning against the wall. There was not an empty seat to be had. A beautiful assortment of skin and hair colors was a heart-warming and inspiring sight to behold. Dreadlocked heads leaned against gray-haired ones; an Afro bloomed here and there and the odd Mohawk spiked the air. There was a healthy scattering of Indians, but, in this, a concert of the music of their country, they were by no means the majority. We - our music, our culture - have well and truly arrived.
Seated on a brightly lit stage were the members of the orchestra. There were three singers, all young and full of smiles and energy, a veena player, a tabla player, and, forming the jazz part of the ensemble, a saxophonist and a bassist-guitarist.
The songs were all in praise of the lord Vishnu, in keeping with the theme of the museum’s special exhibition. An energetic rendering of the song Raghunatha Nannu, a composition of Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar in the ragam Suraranjani, was in progress when we walked in. The rhythm and melody were catchy, but personally, I don’t care much for group singing of Carnatic music. Group harmony and conformity trounce individual spontaneity, and the music has an overly rehearsed and canned feel, without any of the delicious surprises and improvisatory twists that are such an integral part of this music.
The next song was Sri Maha Vishnu Bhajare, and was followed by what was billed as the main item for the evening, Radha Madhava Rathi Charitamiti, Annamacharya’s lovely composition in Devanagari. This song explored the musical synergies between Carnatic music and jazz with a sweet call-and-response type raga alapanai with the veena and saxophone. These two systems of music are tailor-made for fusion, with musical modes (rather than scales) and improvisation being essential components of both. The music made by the veena and saxophone only hinted at the range of exciting possibilities that can be born of this musical marriage.
We left after the next song, Venkateshwara Yadava in Megaranjani. We wanted to spend the remaining time that the museum was open looking at the actual exhibition. The music, bright and spirited as it was, did not touch the soul or tug at the heartstrings; nonetheless, what was lacking in passion, technical prowess and sophistication was compensated for by the enthusiasm and cheeriness of the musicians.
We spent just a short while at the Vishnu exhibition, since it was nearing the museum’s closing time. But oh, what an amazing thing it was! There were rooms filled with the most exquisitely beautiful works of art, several of them over a thousand years old, from all over present-day India, as well as Pakistan and Bangladesh. I’ll restrain myself here, as I don’t want this to turn into an exercise in the thesaural exploration of the word beautiful, and no words in any dictionary will suffice to adequately describe the sculptures in sandstone, granite and bronze, the paintings, the ritual objects, that depicted the various aspects and avatars of Vishnu.
The place was teeming with people - again, most of them not Indian. All were keenly and animatedly involved in what they were looking at. A young American boy was holding forth in front of an unusual statue of Yoga Narasimha, his audience gripped by his very own highly imaginative version of the Narasimha story. I chuckled at the aptness of it: Hinduism is anything to anybody, and every and any interpretation can be accommodated; a religion that spans nothingness to infinity surely has room for newly minted versions of its mythology.
As I walked through the rooms, soaking in the splendor all around me, watching others enchanted by and going into raptures over the heritage of my country, a lump formed in my throat. A feeling of great pride washed over me and at the same time I was stabbed by sadness. Pride in my country for having produced such works of such magnificence; and sadness that I had never seen any of it in my homeland, that the birthplace of such sublime grace and beauty should care so little for it.
In our eagerness to look ahead and move forward, we Indians have abandoned and neglected - and in many cases, defaced and destroyed - our history. Is it any surprise that we do not have a culture of museum-going? I remember the museum visits of my childhood (I can count the number of times I went on the fingers of one hand), dragging my feet through dimly lit rooms with heaps of things dumped higgledy-piggledy in display cases that were grimy with dust and finger-prints. The explanations provided were poorly written, and deadly dull. Nothing there hinted at the richness of our history, of caring for it, being proud of it, making it shine and come alive. I am sure that there are exceptions, but I have not seen, nor am I aware of, them. The works of art at the Brooklyn Museum were lovingly displayed, perfectly lit, and showcased at their best. The explanations, while steering clear of the deeper complexities of Hindu philosophy, were clear and accurate, and made for enjoyable reading, especially for those with little or no prior knowledge of the topic. There were fun interactive exercises that brought the avatars of Vishnu alive for child and adult alike. Everyone who went to that exhibit came away richer for the experience, had their minds opened to the grandeur and fullness of a faraway land and its culture.
I have seen Indian art displayed in many museums in the West, and I have had the same experience, felt the same dual, conflicting feelings of pride and sadness, in all of them. The first time I saw, many years ago, a special Indian exhibition - of Mughal art and artifacts, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London - I felt upset that a mere handful of Indians would get to see the array of art that was so tastefully and appealingly presented. That they would have to travel thousands of miles, and spend thousands of dollars or pounds, or an incrementally higher number of rupees, to see what was born and nurtured on their doorsteps and backyards. But then I thought - would any of this have been lavished with the same care and attention in India? Probably not. I remember seeing the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum and reading the pamphlet given out by the museum where it strongly stated its case for continuing to keep that collection there. Seeing the throngs of people admiring those priceless works of art, I could see the British Museum’s point of view. But my heart went out to the Greeks, too, for their frustration and anger at seeing a vital part of their past torn out and given refuge in a strange land. There is no easy right or wrong answer here; mankind’s history and patrimony can be viewed through a macro or micro lens, and both points of view are relevant and justifiable. Art should never suffer in the bargain.
We had too little time at the museum to do the exhibits any justice. It was closing time, and we had to leave. It’s on until October, so we will definitely be back.
The revelry and festive atmosphere spilled out into the streets outside the museum. Lively reggae music throbbed in the air, competing with the staccato beats of a rap song. People lounged on the steps outside, laughing, chatting, eating ice creams, hot dogs, enjoying the balmy summer night. A line of children watched a glittering fountain rise and fall, their excited voices rippling through the air. It was late in the evening, and Brooklyn was a-bustle with life.
We walked around for a short while, enjoying the sights and sounds all around us, proud to see the inimitable New York spirit alive and well and thriving well beyond the narrow confines of our little island borough. And as the day neared its end, we returned, over the river and through the streets, back home to Manhattan.