Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Open air art - Art in the square

City spaces can be used for open-air art exhibitions. Art  in public spaces can serve as a catalyst to stimulate the cities in different ways, as well as to improve the quality of life of people.

This photo-essay is about the transformation of one such small, ordinary city square in Bologna (Italy) because of the art displays. It is also about this has influenced my personal experience of appreciating art and photography.

Sculptures in Piazza 4 Novembre, Bologna, Italy - Images by Sunil Deepak
THE CITY SQUARES

Why do cities have squares - those open spaces between the buildings?

Medieval towns in Europe, and probably, all over the world, were characterized by closely knit houses, with narrow winding streets. Often such towns were surrounded by high walls with city gates, watch towers and armed guards. Rich persons in such towns had open spaces inside the houses, where behind high walls, there had courtyards and gardens. However for the poor people, there were only cramped dark rooms, where large number of persons lived in small spaces.

Squares were built in the medieval towns as places where markets, fairs, executions and other public events and meetings could be held. They also had a central square, close to the city palace or the power-centre of the city, where the rulers could organise their public ceremonies. The central squares were usually seen as the symbols of the wealth, status and power of the rulers, and therefore, cities tried to make them bigger and better.

Usually when people in Europe talk about the city centres, they are talking about the medieval central squares close to city’s palace and other important institutions. Modern cities are different – they are bigger and more spread-out with suburbs, and tend to have many “centres”, especially near the shopping areas and malls. However, since Europe has conserved its medieval towns, even with more spread-out modern cities, their “city centres” remain in those older medieval parts of the city.

Other countries in Asia and Africa, where cities developed differently, they may not always have a “city centre” as it is understood in Europe. For example, in Delhi, till 20 years ago, city centre usually meant Connaught Place (CP), a shopping area with large open space in the middle, not very far from the national parliament, built by the British in early 20th century. However, today with 16 million persons, Delhi is more like a conglomeration of small towns, each with its centre. Thus, cultural and shopping centres are usually fragmented in dozens of different places.

Medieval towns in Asia and Africa did not always have "squares" but sometimes the same role was played by temple or mosque courtyards, or maidans (open grounds used for fairs and sports).

IV NOVEMBER SQUARE OF BOLOGNA

Piazza IV Novembre (4th November square) is a small, ordinary square in the old medieval part of Bologna city in Italy. In almost 3 decades of living and working in Bologna, I don’t think that I had ever thought about this square till 2010.

Medieval part of Bologna has its central square called Piazza Maggiore (literally “the biggest square”) in front of the Accursio Palace where the Prince Bishop, the governor of the city, used to live. Today this place has different historical buildings including the cathedral and the city’s covered market (Sala Borsa) which now hosts the central library. It is no longer the governing centre of the city as mayor’s office has shifted to a new modern building some kilometres away, but it remains the cultural centre of the city.

IV November square is to one side of the Accursio palace, a small space that you pass through for going to the passport office, bus stop or the public toilets. It had a historical hotel, but was otherwise it was a nondescript kind of place.

I am not sure when they decided to put the public displays of art in this square. I noticed them for the first time in 2009. I had developed interest in photography a few years earlier. In 2009, I had clicked a few pictures of the sculptures displayed in this square, without really thinking about them as something very special. In fact, I do not know the name of their sculptor.

Sculptures in Piazza 4 Novembre, Bologna, Italy - Images by Sunil Deepak

The same year (2009), around Christmas, after a particularly heavy snowfall, while going towards the bus stop, I had paused in IV Novembre square, struck by the beauty of snow that had settled on those sculptures, making furred coats and caps for the “statue people” shivering in the cold night (in the two images below). I think that was the first time that I had consciously thought about sculpture displays in that space.

Sculptures in Piazza 4 Novembre, Bologna, Italy - Images by Sunil Deepak

Sculptures in Piazza 4 Novembre, Bologna, Italy - Images by Sunil Deepak

ART IN THE 4TH NOVEMBER SQUARE

Some time in 2011, while rushing through the square towards the bus stop, I had stopped again, realising that the sculptures were different. This time, I could see that all the statues had the same “style” and were the work of the same sculptor - they all had tall and slim women with long graceful bodies.

I had loved those art works, they reminded me of paintings of Modigliani and B. Prabha, an Indian painter that I had loved as a child. So, this time I had looked for the sculptor’s name - she was Mirella Guasti, a sculptor from Milan.

Sculptures in Piazza 4 Novembre, Bologna, Italy - Images by Sunil Deepak

Sculptures in Piazza 4 Novembre, Bologna, Italy - Images by Sunil Deepak

Sculptures in Piazza 4 Novembre, Bologna, Italy - Images by Sunil Deepak

A few days later I had gone back to IV Novembre square to photograph those sculptures. And then over the next few months, I had gone back many times, to look at those sculptures from different sides, to click their pictures from different angles and at different times of the day.

I had thought that there must be some art gallery or an art shop nearby which was putting up these sculptures in the square, as a kind of publicity to get people to visit their shop/gallery.

It was only in 2013, when Mirella Guasti’s sculptures were replaced by airy, languid works of Leonardo Lucchi, that finally I had understood that the square had been turned into an open air sculpture-exhibition space.

Sculptures in Piazza 4 Novembre, Bologna, Italy - Images by Sunil Deepak

Sculptures in Piazza 4 Novembre, Bologna, Italy - Images by Sunil Deepak

Sculptures in Piazza 4 Novembre, Bologna, Italy - Images by Sunil Deepak

Sculptures in Piazza 4 Novembre, Bologna, Italy - Images by Sunil Deepak

Tourists visiting Piazza Maggiore, saw the glimpses of these sculptures and curious, came to the IV Novembre square to look at them. Often they clicked pictures, sometimes selfies, and sometimes with their hands around the provocative parts of the statues, laughing loudly or turning red with embarrassment about their daring.

In 2014, the new display had the works of the sculptor Sergio Únia.


Sculptures in Piazza 4 Novembre, Bologna, Italy - Images by Sunil Deepak

Sculptures in Piazza 4 Novembre, Bologna, Italy - Images by Sunil Deepak

Sculptures in Piazza 4 Novembre, Bologna, Italy - Images by Sunil Deepak

By this time, I had become more aware of the impact of art in public spaces. Thus last year, I went to visit the sculptures of Sergio Únia many times.

Now I am curious about the other artists whose works will be displayed in the IV Novembre square. Next month, when I will go to Bologna, I am planning to check if they have put the works of another artist and what kind of works are they?

So if you are visiting Bologna, remember to go and check the sculptures in this little unassuming square, behind the more famous Piazza Maggiore.

ART IN PUBLIC SPACES AND PHOTOGRAPHY

Ever since my first digital camera in late 2004, I have slowly discovered my passion for photography. This passion has changed the way I react with the world and also with art. In this transformation, the sculptures displayed in the IV Novembre square have also played an important role.

I had always been “artistic” – as a child, I loved painting and looking at paintings and sculptures. My parents had taken me to see many art exhibitions. However, till I learned to look at art through the lens of my camera, my relationship with art was  different - it was at a more superficial level. I had the aesthetic pleasure of looking at beauty and the emotions of the art, but there was some distance between me and the art.

Digital photography changed that relationship. By looking at sculptures from different angles, appreciating the way the quality and colour of light changes the textures and shadows, wondering about how different backgrounds influence my perceptions about colours and lines - all these things changed my connection to the art. Now when I look at sculptures, after an overview for their emotional and aesthetic impact, I focus on different parts. I can appreciate small details, and I can think about the hidden meanings of the gestures. I feel that now because of photography, I relate to the art more deeply. 

I also think that taking pictures of art in open spaces is very different from looking at them inside museums. In Europe, you can take pictures in almost all museums except for the works of some really famous artists or sometimes in some special exhibitions. Thus, I have been taking pictures of art works inside museums for a long time, but the feelings I get doing photography in open spaces like in the IV Novembre square, are completely different. Perhaps this is because museums are serious places and you can’t really behave inappropriately with those art works as if they are your friends?

In 4th November square, I do not have to worry about my behaviour, I can be as irreverent to those sculptures as I wish. If I want to sit underneath and focus on the buttocks, no one is going to frown on me – may be persons passing by will smile knowingly, shaking their heads at the “dirty old man”, but that does not really matter. Perhaps you can't look at art inside museums in that way? And, may be that is why I like the public sculptures so much?

Sculptures in Piazza 4 Novembre, Bologna, Italy - Images by Sunil Deepak
CONCLUSIONS

I don’t know whose idea it was of turning 4th November square into an open-air art exhibition space? Whoever it was, I think that it is a wonderful initiative. I hope that it will be emulated by other cities and other squares.

Improving the quality of life of their citizens is, or should be, a key goal of all cities. Art can touch our deepest parts and make us live the human experience in new ways. Most of us in developing world are hardly ever taught about art and art appreciation. For example, most museums in India are usually stuffy places where things are displayed behind glass cases and screens, and there are signboards prohibiting photography, videos and making noise. They are usually not the places of joy and pleasure in learning and experiencing, rather they are places to “teach” us something.

Art in the public spaces, can overcome all these limitations of museums.

Today countries and cities worry about economic growth, they are not so much bothered about art and culture. But I think that art and culture are a fundamental part of humanity, to lose them will be like losing an essential part of ourselves. And, economic growth without art and culture, would be arid and limiting. We live and work better if we are surrounded by beauty and creativity.

So I support the movement for placing art in public spaces!

***

Friday, April 10, 2015

Guwahati City Walks – Basistha temple

Finally I am ready to start with my Guwahati city walks – discovering this city through easy walking tours. For the first Guwahati tour I have chosen a simple and beautiful city temple located at the base of a hill and surrounded by a lush green forest – the Basistha temple.

Guwahati City Walks - Basistha temple - Images by Sunil Deepak

Situated at the base of verdant hills, close to a waterfall, this walk will also give you an opportunity to admire nature as well as the art of young students from Guwahati.

It is an easy walk, though depending upon the season, Guwahati can be a little hot and humid. So keep an umbrella or a hat with you, along with a bottle of water. And we are ready to go!

REACHING BASISTHA TEMPLE

The Basistha temple is at the south-western edge of Guwahati. The road near the state government secretariat in Dispur (Last Gate road), passing through Beltola and Basistha chariali, will take you to this temple located at the base of a hill.

The temple is connected by frequent city buses that pass on the main A.T. and G. S. roads. Just make sure that you take a bus that clearly specifies “Basistha temple” (in case of doubt, ask the bus conductors before boarding it). This is important as some of the buses terminate near Natun Bazar of Basistha, around 2 km before the temple. The bus going to the temple will drop you in the square right in front of it.

If you prefer, you can also take an auto or a taxi. Considering the difficulties of negotiating reasonable fares with the Guwahati auto drivers, personally I would suggest that you opt for a taxi – the city now has radio taxis such as Prime cabs and Green cabs that are convenient. In the end, you will pay slightly more or the same as the auto fare, but at least you won’t need to negotiate with some rude and sometimes, aggressive persons!

The area map below shows the places to visit during this walking tour.

Guwahati City Walks - Basistha temple - Images by Sunil Deepak

WHO WAS BASISTHA

Guru Basistha was one of the original sapta-rishis, the 7 spiritual gurus described as authors of the Rigveda. He gave his name to the Basistha (Vashishtha) clan. These 7 gurus as supposed to be the 7 stars that make the Great Bear constellation that connects to the Pole star.

In north India, he is known as Guru Vashishtha. In the north-east of India, “v” is pronounced as “b” and “s” is pronounced as “sh”, leading to the apparent change in name.

There are many stories linked to Guru Basistha. The most well-known story has him as the teacher of young princes of Ayodhya in Ramayana, Ram and Lakshman.

Linked to his role as the teacher of Rama is his book “Vashishtha Yoga”, that deals mainly with the meditation part of Yoga. This book is supposed to contain his lessons to Rama about understanding the world reality, and the nature of consciousness and creation. This book explains the importance of achieving shanti (peace), proper vichar (thoughts), santosh (satisfaction) and satsang (good company).

He is also known for another book, “Vashishtha Samhita”, a treatise on “electoral astrology” dealing with the identification of the most auspicious time (mahurat) for carrying out different activities such as marriages and journeys.

Different stories credited to Basistha are probably about different persons from the Basistha clan over a period of time, each of whom had taken the title of Guru Basistha. I think that the apparent contradictions of these stories that show him in different periods of time and link him to stories in different parts of India are an example of “fractal nature” of Indian way of thinking (as explained by Harpreet Singh) and as explained by Professor Diane Ecke in her book “India: a sacred geography”.

For example, a story has him as the son of gods Mitra Varuna. Mitra and Varuna were two ancient Indo-European deities or perhaps two names of the same deity, that are mentioned in Rigveda. Ruins of ancient temples to Mitra from the Pre-Christian era, when his cult was associated with the figure of a bull, are found in Rome. Another story calls him the the Manas (human) son of god Brahma, the creator of universe for Hindus. His name also appears in some Buddhist texts such as Vinaya Pitaka.

However temples and cults to Guru Basistha are not very common in other parts of India and are certainly not as popular, as they are in Assam. For example, the popular folk theatre of Assam called Bhaona, practiced around the island of Majuli, gives a lot of importance to guru Basistha in enacting the story of Ramayana.

Guwahati City Walks - Basistha temple - Images by Sunil Deepak

1 BASISTHA TEMPLE COMPLEX

The temple is placed at the base of a hill, where Basistha river passes over boulders creating different waterfalls. The temple includes different buildings.

Guwahati City Walks - Basistha temple - Images by Sunil Deepak

Guwahati City Walks - Basistha temple - Images by Sunil Deepak

Guwahati City Walks - Basistha temple - Images by Sunil Deepak

A red temple in typical Assamese style is located at a higher level, while closer to the river, there is a temple that carries different Ganesha statues on the outer walls.

Guwahati City Walks - Basistha temple - Images by Sunil Deepak

Across the river there is a sacred shrine under a tree, a small shrine to Shiva and on another small hill, a Manasha Devi temple with the story of Behula and Lakhinder.

Guwahati City Walks - Basistha temple - Images by Sunil Deepak

Guwahati City Walks - Basistha temple - Images by Sunil Deepak

The whole area is full of monkeys and small animals like squirrels, that seem to live together with humans without any problems.

Guwahati City Walks - Basistha temple - Images by Sunil Deepak

In the rainy season, the streams of water crashing on the big dark boulders and the small waterfalls make it a wonderful place to observe nature. A simple shaking bridge over the stream usually has the monkeys jumping playfully on the ropes.

In the grounds around the stream, you can observe people conducting ritual ceremonies for the dead family members such as pinda-daan in the water or getting the head shaved after the rituals, while monkeys wait to snatch the prayer flowers and sweets.

Upstream, above another small bridge over the gushing waters takes you to an area where there are built numerous shiva-lingas in the stream. I have heard about the trek to a village on the hill beyond this point to an ancient cave, but I have yet to do it!

Guwahati City Walks - Basistha temple - Images by Sunil Deepak

Local folklore says that the temple in this place goes back to many centuries, to the times of Ahom kings. However, the present day temple buildings do not look very old.

THE SQUARE OUTSIDE THE TEMPLE

In the square outside the temple, a series of charming shacks have women selling traditional packets containing flowers, incense, coconut etc. for the temple prayers.

Guwahati City Walks - Basistha temple - Images by Sunil Deepak

The square where the buses stop is full of small shops selling souvenirs. This is also the place where they build elaborate house like bamboo and hay structures for the traditional Assamese festivals like Bihu.

Guwahati City Walks - Basistha temple - Images by Sunil Deepak

On specific days linked to the traditional festivals, this space gets full of shops and visitors.

2 ARTS COLLEGE OF GUWAHATI

If you walk from the temple towards the city you will see the simple building of the city Fine Arts College on your left, with hostels at the top of a hill.

Guwahati City Walks - Basistha temple - Images by Sunil Deepak

If you have time, take a look at the grounds of the art college as they have different examples of the sculptures and other art materials by the students.

Personally, it was absolutely wonderful to discover and visit these grounds and see some of the sculptures, many of them covered with dust, making this place look like an ancient archaeological site.

Guwahati City Walks - Basistha temple - Images by Sunil Deepak

Across the road, in front of the college gate, when I visited it, there was an absolutely amazing cloth-sculpture with goddesses Durga and Kali, in vivid rust and earth colours.

Guwahati City Walks - Basistha temple - Images by Sunil Deepak

MORE PLACES TO SEE IN THE AREA

Further down from the arts college, on the left you will see the Botanical Gardens (3) of Guwahati on another hill. The gardens are closed to the public and I have no idea when and if they will be reopened. Old boards in the garden show a long list of different trees and plants present in it. Old benches and paths seem to indicate that at some time in the past these gardens were functioning.

If you search for "botanical gardens of Guwahati" on internet, you will only find the mention of botanical gardens inside the city zoo while there is nothing about these botanical gardens of Basistha. I think that renovating and opening these botanical gardens will be a good step for increasing the places to visit in this part of Guwahati.

The small road (not shown in the Google map above) in front of the closed Botanical Gardens leads to the Shanti Sadhana ashram (4) where spiritual retreats and events are organised. However, I did not go inside to find out more about this Ashram, so I can’t provide more information about them.

Guwahati City Walks - Basistha temple - Images by Sunil Deepak

Across the road from the Botanical garden, down an escarpment, is a tiny but charming Hanuman temple in a simple hut where women from surrounding areas gather for prayers and kirtan (singing of hymns) on Tuesdays.

If you continue on the road towards the city, on the left side you will see the Indian army camp and the army base hospital. The army camp also has a couple of prayer places, including a south-Indian Hindu temple and a Sikh gurudwara.


Guwahati City Walks - Basistha temple - Images by Sunil Deepak
Across the road from the Army base hospital, there is a well-known Blind school and the office of Assam State Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities. Here on the side of the road, you can take the bus or an auto to go back to the city.

A REQUEST

Unfortunately, Guwahati does not have a tradition of keeping garbage collection boxes in such tourist places. Probably that is why people visiting this temple throw away their garbage in the river or leave it wherever they can. The river shows signs of this careless behaviour, especially on festival days when it is crowded.

Though it can be equally ugly, at least the organic garbage goes back to the mother earth or monkeys take it away. However, plastic bags and aluminium foil wrappers remain there forever. So please do take care of your garbage and if possible consider using paper bags or disposable clay cups (and in the process, give work to the potters of the city).

There is a big black coloured garbage collection container in the square outside the temple, please use that.

CONCLUSIONS

I loved visiting Basistha temple very much because it brought together an encounter with the sacred traditions of Assam, as well as with natural beauty and art. The places described in this post are quite close to each other, so once you have reached Basistha temple, it is easy to walk around and visit all of them.

Guwahati City Walks - Basistha temple - Images by Sunil Deepak

If you are visiting Guwahati, do keep a couple of hours to visit this beautiful place.

I hope to go back to Basistha temple some time soon to complete the village trek on the hill and to see for myself the Basistha cave. May be I will be lucky and see some elephants as well. If I do, I will tell you about it!

***
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