Sunday, 18 April 2021

How harpists were portrayed in the tales of the Buddha’s former lives

 The theme of these stories revolves around longing and heartache.

In my previous blog, I gave examples of how female harpists were depicted in Burmese manuscript illustrations. In this blog, I will discuss stories of male harpists that appear in Jātakas, or tales of the Buddha’s former lives, in the British Library’s Burmese manuscripts collection. The theme of these stories revolves around longing and heartache.

The Sussondi Jātaka recounts the story of Sagga, a harpist-minstrel. He is sent by the king of Benares (Varanasi) to find the queen who has disappeared. Unbeknownst to the king, the queen had in fact fallen in love with the Garuḍa king, who had taken her with him to Nāga Island.

The king sends Sagga, his harpist-minstrel, to search for Sussondi, his queen. | British Library

While looking for her, Sagga crosses the sea with a ship of merchants who implore him to play his harp. He responds: “I would make music, but if I do, the fish will be so excited that your vessel will be wrecked.”

The merchants disbelieve him and insist, and in the end, he plays and sings with great beauty. The fish start splashing about and a sea monster who lives in the area leaps up falls onto the ship and sinks it. Nevertheless, Sagga manages to reach the shore of the Nāga island clutching onto his (boat-shaped) harp.

Queen Sussondi, who was strolling on the shore in the absence of the Garuḍa king, finds him. She recognises Sagga and welcomes him with open arms. They become lovers and Sussondi hides him from the Garuḍa king whenever he returns.

Sagga is shipwrecked by jumping fish, but manages to swim to shore with his harp. Photo credit: British Library

The next time a group of merchants reach the shore, Sagga sails back with them to Benares (this time successfully), where he plays his harp and sings the song of Sussondi, replete with his own longing of her, to the king.

Sagga makes the return voyage by boat. Photo credit: British Library

The Burmese harp or Saung is a very old instrument that has a continuous history that spans over a thousand years. Many temple reliefs and wall frescoes from Bagan (ninth century-13th centuries) depict harps, although Judith Becker has suggested these harps may be different from the Sri Ksetra harp (see previous blog), which in turn resembles quite closely the modern Burmese harp.

Sagga returns to the palace and sings the story of Sussondi to the king. Photo credit: British Library

There probably were many different kinds of harps in use at the time. Although the terminology for the harp varies, the word Saung first appears at the Lokatheikpan temple in Bagan (c. 1125), where it describes “monks, who can play the harp”.

Indeed, the Saung seems to have an inextricable connection with Buddhism and, according to Becker, the disappearance of the harp accompanied the decline of Buddhism in certain parts of South Asia.

The earliest known songs thought to have been composed for harp music date to the early 14th century. Although song-texts were inscribed on palm leaf, there was no musical notation, and so the musical tradition was passed on orally with the music itself being impressed on memory when performed.

The oldest harp music that still survives is the “Three Barge Songs”, attributed to Wungyi Padei-tha-yaza (1683-1754), a minister at the Toungoo court. These songs purportedly describe a river voyage from Lake Meiktila to Tagaung.

A blindfolded Brahmin plays the harp to his wife, while her lover hits him from behind. Photo credit: Mss Burmese 202, f. 75v

The Aṇḍabhūta Jātaka (Mss Burmese 202) makes use of the harp for a lighthearted slapstick humour scene. It recounts the story of a Brahmin who has gone to great effort to find and keep a wife who has never seen any other men.

Here he plays the harp to her at home for her entertainment. Unbeknownst to him, however, she has taken a lover and tricks him into being blindfolded through the pretence of her being too shy of him watching her dance. While he is blindfolded in this way, the lover, who is currently staying in the house, hits him on the head and hides.

The Dīghītikosala Jātaka (Or 13538) tells the heart-wrenching story of a prince (the Bodhisatta), whose parents are cruelly slain by a deceitful rival. He is devastated, but instead of seeking revenge he goes to stay with the keeper of the red elephant of the palace and leads a simple life.

Slowly he recovers from his heartache and when the monsoon rains fall he sings and plays beautiful songs of acceptance and reconciliation with his harp.

In the next instalment of this series of blogs on the Burmese harp, I will talk about the Saung’s relationship with Gautama Buddha.


Muriel C. Williamson, The Burmese Harp: Its Classical Music, Tunings, and Modes. Dekalb, Ill.: Southeast Asia Publications, 2000.

Judith Becker, “The Migration of the Arched Harp from India to Burma”, The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 20 (Mar., 1967), pp. 17-23.

E.B. Cowell (ed.), The Jātaka or stories of the Buddha’s former births, Vols. I-VI. Oxford: The Pali Text Society, 2004-2005.

(Source: Asian and African Studies blog)

Saturday, 17 April 2021

Hidden women of history: Hélisenne de Crenne, the first French novelist to tell her own story

 In 1538, a new author burst on to the literary scene in Paris. Published by Denys Janot, four new works appeared within five years by a writer known as Hélisenne de Crenne.

The first was Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours (The Torments of Love), a novel that depicted the disastrous consequences of an adulterous affair.

In 1539 came a collection of letters that explored women’s speech, education, friendship and legal rights among its topics.

Vittore Carpaccio’s portrait of a woman reading (1510). Wikiart

In 1540 she published Le Songe (The Dream), a moral and didactic work in which a woman and her lover reflected upon the perils of lust.

Her last known work was a translation into French prose of the first four books of Virgil’s Aeneid (1541), dedicated to the king, Francis I.

Hélisenne de Crenne was the pen name of Marguerite Briet, the daughter of a legal family from Abbeville. Few details of her life are certain, but we know that she obtained a legal separation from her husband, Philippe Fournel, Lord of Crenne, and moved to Paris, the centre of French literary activities and publishing. There she owned several properties. It appears that her son, Pierre, was a student there in 1548.

Hélisenne was the first living woman of the century to be printed in France and hers was the first autobiographical novel to be published in French. The publication of her works was remarkable in several ways.

Speaking out

Women represented less than 1% of all identifiable published authors in 16th-century France. Female literacy and broader education was not as high as for men at the same social levels.

Women at court were producing sophisticated intellectual and creative works that circulated in manuscript. Print publication provided a more open and visible expression than manuscript circulation, but was limited to a more select few. Even women in powerful social positions acknowledged expectations that women should restrict their speech to the domestic sphere.

An illustration from the translation of Virgil’s verse depicts Hélisenne presenting it to the king. Bibliothèque nationale de France

Most women writers provided lengthy justifications or apologies for their venture into print. Hélisenne claimed to hesitate to make “mention of immodest love, which according to the opinion of some shy women could be judged more worthy to be conserved in profound silence than to be published for a widespread audience”. Nevertheless, she pressed on.

Rather than locate herself in a line of female authors, Hélisenne identified herself in a tradition of the male canon for her authority to write. The opening phrase of her Le Songe recalled none other than Cicero as her model:

…in imitation of him, the desire arose in me to relate in detail to you a dream worthy of recording.

Small books to carry

Print publication offered a woman without elite networks access to a large pool of readers, and perhaps a way to reach potential patrons at court.

The dedication of her translation to Francis I and her praise of his sister, Marguerite de Navarre (another prolific author whose works appears in print over the course of the century), in her Letters suggests that Hélisenne may have hoped for their patronage.

Le Songe de madame Helisenne Crenne (1541) Bibliothèque nationale de France

The staggered release of her writings seems to have been planned to heighten their impact. Her publisher, Denys Janot, mainly published works in French, targetting a popular market and using on-trend Roman typeface rather than the heavy, old-fashioned Gothic script.

Most of Hélisenne’s works, like those of other female writers, were in small sizes such as octavo, duodecimo and sextodecimo. These were portable and cheap, unlike the larger-sized folio and quarto scholarly and religious works intended to be consulted in libraries as part of a long-lasting record, though her translation of Virgil’s Aeneid was produced as a folio, with extensive woodcut illustrations.

A female perspective

Hélisenne was one of the first women writers who sought publication of her work seemingly as a conscious contribution to contemporary popular literature.

Her novel, The Torments of Love, involves an unusual structure, retelling the same events from the perspective of three different narrators: Hélisenne, her lover Guénélic, and Guénélic’s best friend, Quézinstra. Each section offers new insights to the overarching narrative, and each has its own distinctive tone and style.

The work’s balancing of elements from chivalric literature and a new emotional sensibility culminates in its conclusion as a battle between Athena and Venus over the book itself.

A nineteenth-century artist’s imagined Helisenne. Wikipedia

Her translation of Aeneid was equally radical, creatively embellishing the original from a female perspective with a highly sympathetic presentation of Dido’s plight and women’s loyalty in love.

She was very proud of her publication in the city that was the intellectual and publishing centre of France, saying:

… it is an inestimable pleasure to me to think that my books are on sale in this noble Parisian city, which is inhabited by an innumerable multitude of wonderfully learned people.

A commercial success

Hélisenne’s work were a commercial success, going through nine editions in a short, intense period to 1560.

Torments of Love is Hélisenne’s only work to be dedicated to female readers who she called “all honest ladies”. Elsewhere, she assumed her works would be of interest to everyone, including the king.

A later editor did not agree. Claude Colet explained in the introduction to the 1550 edition of her works that his extensive simplification of her Latinate style for young ladies was “to render the obscure words or those too much like Latin into our own familiar language, so that they will be more intelligible to you”.

The last known evidence of this groundbreaking author is in 1552 but, in her lifetime, she had achieved a remarkable series of literary firsts.

(Source: The Conversation)

Friday, 16 April 2021

This book visits the sites of India’s civilisations to reimagine 4,000 years of history

 Namit Arora combines the evidence gleaned from travel and research to draw informed conclusions in ‘Indians: A Brief History of a Civilisation’.

The book Indians: A Brief History of a Civilisation offers an unusual saunter through more than 4,000 years of India’s history. The milestones on the journey on which Namit Arora takes us are wondrous yet oft-ignored locales including Dholavira, Pataliputra, Nagarjunakonda, Nalanda, Khajuraho, Hampi and Varanasi.

Clockwise from top left: Historical sites at Dholavira, Nagarjunakonda, Hampi, and Patliputra. | Dholavira: Rahul Zota / CC BY-SA 4.0; Nagarjunakonda: Sabyk2001 / CC BY-SA 3.0; Hampi: Hawinprinto / CC BY-SA 4.0; Patliputra Manoj / Public Domain

As guides in addition to himself, Arora enlists history’s well-known travellers from other lands: Megasthenes from Greece, China’s Xuanzang, Central Asia’s Alberuni, Marco Polo the Italian, the Portuguese who visited Vijayanagara, Bernier the Frenchman, and more. Meeting the reader in chronological sequence, these travellers’ accounts form part of this 296-page book, along with Arora’s own reflections and comments, including those on philosophical debates and architectural puzzles.

The net result is a sobering assessment that greatness in our land was joined far too often by callousness and neglect, even though elements from the past continue to strike awe in the reader’s mind.

Imagining daily life

Arora is someone who abandoned his Silicon Valley perches (for which IIT Kharagpur had equipped him) for his love of India’s irresistible places. Also in play, it would seem, was a thirst in the writer to understand the springs of India’s history as also the statics/dynamics of Indian society. Pulled, too, by the capabilities of the camera – which, going by the book’s stunning colour photographs, he wields with great skill – Arora has repeatedly visited the celebrated landmarks.

He has studied these places intensively and reflected deeply on them. He scrutinises the aforementioned travellers even as he quotes them. In Indians, we see these observers in their national contexts too, not just as reporters of India, and thus glimpse their likely motivations.

But it’s more than the camera or the travellers. The book’s quotes and notes confirm to us that Arora has absorbed what a great many other scholars have written about these places and their histories. He also feels free to offer his own takes, and why not?

A refreshing feature in Indians is Arora’s effort to imagine the life and bustle of each locale in its heyday. After providing recorded perspectives and knowledge extracted from archaeology, Arora daydreams a bit. These short reveries where the past is recreated for the reader appear plausible and lifelike. Here, to give an example, is Vijayanagara’s large-scale construction activity in the 14th and 15th centuries:

“I imagine labourers, masons and sculptors doing the hard, back-breaking work of quarrying, moving, cutting, shaping and raising stones with the basic technologies of the day: chisel and hammer, ropes and ramps, human and animal muscle. Countless must have died in accidents.”

Through traveller’s eyes

Earlier, depicting how Chinese travellers during a period of three centuries (“400 -700 CE”) ended up enlightening Indians about India, Arora makes a different point: “Many Indian monks also went as missionaries and scholars to China but none of their observations have come down to us.” While the world has always described India, why is it that Indians, exceptions apart, have shown little interest in portraying the peoples beyond their borders, even when living amidst them?

Providing history’s dates with seeming certitude, Arora is similarly unequivocal and bold in his appraisals and assertions. Where the exact date or duration of a past exercise remains unknown, scholars are certainly entitled to offer their considered estimate, even if it’s a rough one. And if after examining arguments for or against a particular position, a scholar reaches a conclusion, there is something to be said for offering that conclusion in clear and even categorical language. Which is what Arora does.

How Buddhism was swept aside in India, including by being absorbed in Hinduism, is part of the history Arora examines. His historical tour also shows, sadly, that sati was an old and indigenous practice, recorded in the first century BCE, not something forced on Hindu society by aggressive Muslim males, whose religion entered the Indian scene many centuries later.

Of Alberuni’s famous text on India, written “around 1030” after the author spent “most of thirteen years” in India and learnt much (including Sanskrit), Arora says: “Alberuni approached India like a scholarly journalist… [His] is the work of a deeply intelligent, curious and decent mind.” Arora reminds us that Alberuni ended his book by writing, “We ask god to pardon us for every statement of ours which is not true.”

Some of Arora’s binaries may be too sharp. In his chapter on Varanasi, the city of (among so many others) Kabir, Ravidas and Tulsidas, Arora places Tulsidas in one column of “personal piety” and “the status quo”, and Ravidas and Kabir in an opposed column of “a casteless and classless society”. In countless homes, such a conflict was unknown or ignored. Many Indians were (and I hope are) raised on the similarities in the devotion and thought of these amazing poets. We learnt the songs of all three.

In Indians, caste seems to emerge as Indian society’s principal characteristic and bane, but coercions and oppressions within “low” castes are also visible. Much was indeed golden in India’s history, but was there a golden age that foreigners destroyed? Unfortunately, Arora’s long “tour” does not reveal any sizeable period when most of India gleamed.

Painstakingly researched, Indians is a pleasure to read. Significant arguments accompany the utterly fascinating information showered by it. Any rival history that wishes to refute this book’s conclusions had better find credible dates and solid evidence, for Namit Arora has set a high bar.

(Source: Scroll)

Thursday, 15 April 2021

The Bengali artist who popularised the ‘wet sari effect’ and invented a new genre of figure painting

 Through his intimate works, Hemen Mazumdar changed the way women were depicted in Indian art.

Hemendranath Mazumdar (1898-1948) was born in a landowning family in Bengal. He enrolled at the art school in Calcutta against his father’s wishes. Having fallen out with the authorities, he then moved to the privately-owned Jubilee Academy. Disillusioned with both art schools, he decided to teach himself figure drawing by means of books obtained from England. The role of reproductions in art books in the formation of colonial artists cannot be gainsaid. In the 1920s, he, Atul Bose, and the great Jamini Roy – the last two completed the course at Calcutta government art school – became close friends, making ends meet with artistic odd jobs, such as painting scenes for the theatre, or producing portraits of the deceased for the family based on photographs, which was a popular ‘Victorian’ custom in Bengal.

'Monsoon', 25.5x36.7 cm, watercolour on paper. | Image courtesy: Kumar Collection.

The group decided to set up an academic artists’ circle to challenge the onslaught of the Bengal School against academic artists. The group brought out an influential illustrated journal, Indian Academy of Art, in 1920, to win the Bengali public, and organised exhibitions to showcase academic artists from all around India. In addition, they needed to counteract the Bengal School journal, Rupam’s dominance. To ensure wide readership, the modestly priced but elegantly produced Indian Academy of Art covered a wide variety of topics. In addition to articles on art theory that expatiated on naturalism, it supplied art news and gossip, travelogues, short stories and humorous pieces. However, the ultimate intention of the Indian Academy of Art was to publicise the works of Mazumdar, Bose and Jamini Roy (who remained with them for a while but was gradually moving away from academic naturalism.) Colour plates of their prize-winning pictures dominated the issues. Here among other paintings, Mazumdar’s first major painting, Palli Pran (Soul of the Village), on the ‘wet sari effect’ was published.

'Pallipran', 90.3x61.5 cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy: Kumar Collection.

The elegant journal with high-quality reproductions soon folded because of financial difficulties. Their second venture, Society of Fine Arts, to show academic artists, enjoyed greater success. Let us remember that this was the era of the dominance of the Bengal School, the first nationalist art movement in India. Abanindranath Tagore and his students had managed to oust the academic artists from positions of power. In the ideological battle between the westernisers (academic artists) and the orientalists (Abanindranath’s pupils), the centre of power for oriental art rested in the Indian Society of Oriental Art, run by the brothers Abanindranath and Gaganendranath. The Tagores exercised strict control over this institution by excluding all academic painters.

Effectively debarred from exhibiting in Calcutta, academic artists of Bengal were forced to send their works to exhibitions outside Bengal, which was beyond the reach of most. The group resolved to challenge the authority of the Society of Oriental Art by founding the rival society and holding ambitious all-India exhibitions. The first exhibition of the Society of Fine Arts in 1921-22 showed over a thousand paintings from academic artists from all over India, which went some way towards redressing the wide neglect felt by academic artists.

'Rose or Thorn?', 61x50.7 cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy: Kumar Collection.

The group disbanded after Bose left for England in 1924. Mazumdar’s career as a professional painter however took off. He produced a series of subjects centring on women engaged in leisurely activities, such as toilet, or daydreaming. See for instance, a delicate portrait of a woman in reverie (figure above) that demonstrates his ability to capture a mood. However, his forte was his particular rendering of the back-view of a female subject, which gave him an opportunity to bring out in a convincing manner the sensuous layers and folds of smooth youthful flesh, with a hint of muscles and the bone-structure. The important point is that none of these women were adolescent but mature and presumably married. There are a number of important examples in the show: The Wounded Vanity, Blue Sari, Harmony and also Image, which excel in the sensuous quality of the back. His reputation, however, rests on his erotic paintings of women in la drape mouillée and rarely shown fully unclothed, with the mere hint of an item of clothing that accentuated the figure rather than concealing it. I have mentioned the best-known Palli Pran. There are a few others in the show. Monsoon shows a woman washing her feet sitting on the steps of the river ghat and another of a young woman emerging from the ghat, carrying a water pot with the breasts showing through the sari. His one other successful attempt to capture translucent flesh tones was a large ambitious watercolour nude suggestively titled, Dilli ka Laddu, loosely translated as ‘the obscure object of desire’.

Mazumdar won no less than three prizes at the venerable Bombay Art Society in three successive years, including the gold medal of the society for his painting, Smriti (Memories) in 1920. The journalist Kanhaiyalal Vakil of the Bombay Chronicle complained: ‘One Mr H. Mazumdar of Calcutta won three times the first prize of the Exhibition. It is a disgrace to the Bombay artists...Either the Judging Committee must be incompetent or Mr Mazumdar is too high for the exhibition.’ Around 1926, Mazumdar had his first financial success when a commercial firm acquired the reproduction rights to one of his paintings for a substantial sum. The painting provided the main attraction for its annual calendar. By the 1940s, Mazumdar gained notoriety or fame (according to one’s outlook) as a painter of partially clothed women. His large oils of partially clothed women and his intimate, voyeuristic eroticism attracted the Maharajas of Jaipur, Bikaner, Kotah, Kashmir, Cooch Behar, Mayurbhanj, Patiala and other the princely states who commissioned him to work for them. Among the nobility, the Maharaja of Patiala, Sir Bhupindranth Singh (1891-1938) was the most devoted, engaging him as a state artist for five years on a handsome salary, which enabled him to build his studio in Calcutta. Apart from his figures and portraits, Mazumdar completed an ambitious screen triptych with the help of assistants.

'Blue Swari', 81x49.3 cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy: Kumar Collection.

Even as he consolidated his reputation, Mazumdar kept a wary eye on the Bengali public, continuing to publish the Indian Academy of Art single-handedly. He aimed at covering all contemporary Indian artists but did not neglect to give considerable publicity to his own work. The Art of Mr. H. Mazumdar in five volumes (1920-24) provided publicity for the artist as well as presenting Mazumdar’s polemical attack on the ideological foundations of the Bengal School, which he contended, was out of touch with contemporary India. Believing in the universality of naturalist art, he insisted that only direct observation of nature could provide an objective standard. Mazumdar waged war relentless against the orientalists till the end of his life.

So, what did Mazumdar achieve? He created a genre of Bengali beauties that captured the imagination of the contemporary Bengali public because of the novelty of their intimacy and their immediacy. They were not impersonal figures learned from art schools but palpable, breathing, real women. The history of the female figure in Indian art is long and complex, with the erotic quotient ranging from semi-draped apsaras (celestial maidens), yakshis (folk deities) and goddesses in Indian temple sculptures to frank scenes of copulation and other sexual activities. These frank scenes were in keeping with the general spirit of the ancient period as also reflected in the great fifth-century author Kalidasa’s Sanskrit poems and plays. A different outlook emerged after the end of the Hindu and Buddhist periods. 

Under the impact of Muslim cultures, ‘respectable’ women no longer appeared unveiled in public. Peasant women had no such constraints, nor did respectable Nair women of Kerala who did not hesitate to go bare-breasted as late as the twentieth century. Equally, in the era of the Turkish-Afghan Sultanates down to the Mughal Empire, the nude was less prevalent in miniature painting, except in the case of miniatures from Rajasthan and Pahari (Hill) states of the Punjab: you are offered a glimpse of beautiful slender aristocratic women taking their bath or getting dressed aided by female attendants, with their coy breasts slightly exposed.

'The Lost Heart', 90x65.2 cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy: Kumar Collection.

Things changed dramatically during the British Raj. In the nineteenth century, Christian missionaries campaigned against what they considered the immoral aspects of Hinduism, the sexual depravity of gods such as Krishna and the phallic worship of the Shiva linga. Under the impact of Victorian evangelism, western-educated Indians developed a more puritanical attitude towards dress and comportment, as blouse and petticoat became de rigueur for women’s attire. A new ambivalence sprang up with regard to the representation of the body in art. The English disapproved of Hindu erotic temple sculptures, and yet worshipped the nude in Victorian academic art, which stood for moral purity and artistic summit. The rulers imposed a new concept of modesty, as to how much body could be exposed without outraging decency. And yet, in no culture was artistic nudity more ubiquitous than the Victorian. The most famous academic painter of India, Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) created a new concept of feminine beauty but seldom ventured into the realm of the artistic nude. The Bengal School of painting led by Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951) rejected figure drawing as part of colonial academic tradition, though there were occasionally tantalising glimpses of the bare female torso in Oriental art created by him and his disciples.

The subject of a rustic maiden returning home in a wet sari after her daily ablutions gave the artist scope to represent the model’s fleshy figure visible through her wet cloth. For all its clever suggestion of an arrested movement, the work was carefully realised in the studio. In order to capture the particular pose Mazumdar took the aid of photographs as well. He thus invented a new genre of figure painting in India, suggesting sensuous flesh tones and soft quality of the skin, enhanced by the semi-transparent garment. Although the nineteenth-century academic master Ravi Varma’s brother Raja Varma had first treated the subject, this was not widely known or imitated, Mazumdar created an independent genre, spawning imitators, the best-known being Thakur Singh of Punjab. Mazumdar was obsessed with capturing the sexual appeal of the lighter-skinned elite women of Bengal, and even wrote verses on his paintings. Most probably the model or inspiration for all these different women was his wife but the subjects avoid a close identification. His draped studies capture the dreamy sensuousness of his sitters absorbed in their own reveries. The subject, Rose or Thorn?, a young woman in a silk sari, wearing elegant earrings and armlets, sits engrossed in her own dream world. The rose in the background has been suggested as symbolising the pain and pleasure of love. It was shown at the annual exhibition of the Academy of Fine Arts in Calcutta in 1936 and was later to draw accolades at an exhibition of Portraits of Great Beauties of the World, held in California in 1952.

In socially conservative Bengal in the 1920s, it is hard to gauge people’s true feelings about Mazumdar. Widely diffused in Bengali journals, his readership could not but have taken a guilty pleasure in beholding his paintings. 

Classical nudes, occurring on the same pages since the early 20th century, did not hold the same shocked fascination because of their cultural distance. Then there were the Bengal School’s mannered, voluptuous two-dimensional semi nudes. The disturbing power of Mazumdar’s women to lay in their palpability and immediacy: his subject an everyday village scene of a young woman returning home after her daily bath. For the puritanical urban middle class, the convincing image of a respectable housewife this portrayed furnished simultaneously discomfort and frisson. A contemporary critic put it well: at a time when women were behind purdah, it was daring to represent someone from a respectable middle-class, someone unapproachable in real life. Thus the beholder experienced the illicit thrill of spying on a ‘respectable’ housewife, the proverbial girl next door. The artist’s tantalising silence about the identity of the model heightened the mystery surrounding her. It is this ambiguity that made such a powerful appeal to the Bengali middle class.

Excerpted with permission from ‘Hemendranath and the Vexed Question of the Wet Sari Effect’ by Partha Mitter, from Hemen Mazumdar: The Last Romantic, edited by Caterina Corni and Nirmalya Kumar, Singapore Management University.

(Source: Scroll)

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

How Virginia Woolf’s work was shaped by music

 Many of Virginia Woolf’s early reviewers noted parallels between her literary innovations and those of contemporary composers, such as Claude Debussy. Woolf’s interest in music was overlooked after her death. However, 80 years on, we are now beginning to explore how her extraordinary experimental uses of narrative perspective, repetition and variation derive from her close study of particular musical works and specific musical forms.

Music provided Woolf (and other modernists including James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Katherine Mansfield) with a vocabulary to imagine and describe their creative practice and formal innovations. Woolf, for instance, compares her diary writing to a pianist practising their scales. She describes her reading as a process of “tuning up” for her writing. And in 1940 she famously observed:

It’s odd, for I’m not regularly musical but I always think of my books as music before I write them.

Virginia Woolf listened to a wide variety of music, including Russian ballet music which she heard when the Ballets Russes visited London in 1912. Wikimedia

Music in Woolf’s life

Woolf grew up immersed in music. As a young woman, she attended operas and concerts at the Royal Opera House three or four times a week – sometimes, every night. Like most women of her age and social class, she had received basic music education in singing and piano. But her passion as a listener far outstripped her abilities as a performer.

Her letters and diaries repeatedly convey her love of classical repertoire – particularly the works of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner. But she heard a wide variety of music in varied settings. She heard folk music as she travelled in England, Scotland and continental Europe. Took in comic and patriotic songs in music halls. Delighted in the work of Arnold Schoenberg and another avant-garde repertoire through her subscription membership of the National Gramophonic Society, and Russian ballet music when the Ballets Russes visited London in 1912.

Woolf’s Hogarth Press also published studies of contemporary music, composers and popular books of music appreciation. Her understanding of – and in some cases intimate friendships with – leading composers, music critics, conductors and other musicians of her time gave her an insight into professional musical life, too. Friends included the composers and critics Eddy Sackville-West and Gerald Berners, the conductor and educator Nadia Boulanger, and the composer and feminist Ethel Smyth.

Music in Woolf’s writing

Woolf’s feminism, pacificism and cosmopolitanism were significantly shaped by her enduring, passionate love of music. The social conventions surrounding music education, performance and composition catalyse some of her wittiest and most acerbic social comedy but also inform her critiques of, for example, women’s unequal access to music education.

In her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915), Woolf references specific musical works to challenge the established expectation that men and women should play different repertoire. The novel’s female protagonist, who is an accomplished amateur pianist, plays Beethoven’s late piano sonatas. These works were frequently characterised as too technically and intellectually demanding for women performers. Essays addressed to amateur female pianists characterised the works as “simply unattainable”.

Virginia Woolf painted by Roger Eliot Fry. Leeds Museums and Galleries, CC BY-NC

Music also influences Woolf’s creative innovations. The double narrative structure of Mrs Dalloway, for example, which contrasts and entwines the lives of society hostess Clarissa Dalloway and traumatised veteran Septimus Warren Smith, may well be modelled on the double form of musical fugues (“fugue” was a contemporary term for shell shock).

Woolf observed in 1909 that, “We are miserably aware how little words can do to render music.” But this difficulty frequently catalyses and becomes a subject of her writing.

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that her prose has been a rich source of creative inspiration for composers. For instance, her work inspired Dominick Argento’s 1974 song cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf and more oblique responses, such as Max Richter’s music for the 2015 ballet Woolf Works.

In the last 15 years, musical responses to Woolf’s writing have proliferated, from the string quartet and songs premiered by the Virginia Woolf and Music project, to the recent announcement that composer Thea Musgrave is writing an opera inspired by Orlando.

In a 1905 essay, Woolf invited contemporary writers to remember words’ allegiance to music and take inspiration from that. Scholars of Woolf’s work and composers are now, it seems, doing just that.

(Source: The Conversation)