Monday, May 26, 2008


A great sight in the district of Ahmedabad’s walled city is the profusion of temples dedicated to Amba Mata or Ambaji, whose main temple is located in Banaskantha near Rajasthan border. Amba Mata is a household deity in Gujarat. People believe that Amba Mata protects them on every occasion and thereby temples dedicated to her stand in each nook and corner of the pol area in the walled city. Besides Amba Mata, there are eight more goddesses such as Bahuchar Mata, Ashapura Mata, which together constitute Nava Durga or the nine forms of the mother goddess.
Children (between the age 12 and 15) of the walled city have a unique tradition of worshipping these mother goddesses, especially the Amba Mata. During the festival of Nava Ratri children from the entire mohala get together and form a team. They collect money to buy puja items and ingredients for feasts. They create an image of one of the goddesses with the help of an adult non-formal artisans, but many times they show the mothergoddess through symbolic gestures showing steps to the mountain, the abode of the goddess Amba Mata, and occasionally a miniature mountain of clay and mud. The entire ten days become an active place in the area surrounding the mohala mata with children performing arti in the evening and ladies playing garbha rasa. Prasad is offered to everyone in the mohola and the visitors. Some hand made toys are also kept near the main idol. On the day following the Dussehara the idols are immersed in a waterbody close to the walled city. At the end, gifts are bought from the collected money and distributed to the members.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


137 years back…a saint was travelling from Dakor to Dwaraka. Once he was thirsty. To quench his thrust he stopped at Karnej, before the mighty gate of Bhadra. Upon seeing that there were very few trees inthe area, he expressed his wish to have a chabutra where birds could come, feed and rest. There lived a grocery seller called Bapalal Modi. He heard the saint's wish and decided to build the chabutra by the time the saint returned from his pilgrim.

Modi had a deep devotion for the cause. He even threatened to go on indefinite fast when his wife refused to sell her gold ornaments to help Modi raise money for the structure. Modi was on the verge of selling his shop and his wife's ornaments when the town had come to his rescue and urged the community to share the financial burden. Later on, the structure was named after Bapalal Modi to honour his efforts.

Today the restored chabutra of Karnej (one of the oldest in the city) stands as a rich testimony of Gujarati folk art heritage.
Chabutra is a unique cultural institution of Gujarat reflecting the benign attitude of Gujarties as peace lovers and their concern about the welfare of all life forms. Chabutra is essentially a platform covered with a dome or hood and mounted on a 5-6 feet high pole. On the platform a dish of water and some grains are kept for birds. Chabutras are of various sizes and shapes. Some can be as large as rooms. They are built of various material including stone, metal, wood and bricks. However the common function of chabutras is providing refuge to birds that are commonly found in human settlements. Historians have different interpretations regarding chabutra's etymology. Some claim that chabutras were earlier known as kabutar, which means pigeon house. It is also believed that the word chabutra has been derived from the word chatri, a popular Rajasthani architectural design. There has been a significant amount of fusion between the design forms of Rajasthan and Gujarat over the centuries and the chabutra is a manifestation of this rich synthesis of culture of two regions. Chabutras also reflect a rich synthesis of Hindu, Jain and Islamic architecture. However, the idea is undoubtedly linked tothe Jain faith which preaches non-violence and humanity. In the local lore there is wide belief that after death a person's soul assumes the form of birds and animals. So by caring for birds they also care for the souls of their departed ancestors.

Some historians believe that originally chabutras were meant to be the destination of message carrying pigeons in the royal households. Yet another group of experts find chabutras as an important element of urban design. They served to enhance the utilization of space judiciously and aesthetically in pols i.e. traditional urban settlements in Gujarat. Even now, old chabutras in villages and pols are located very prominently in the centre — the place where most community interactions and the celebration of festivals take place.

Today many of the chabutras of the old city are decaying. Having being encroached upon or plastered with bill boards and loudspeakers, manyof these beautiful chabutras are dying - a sad testimony to the horrific changes that are taking place in the urban environment, in total disregard to traditional relics. The chabutras were once symbols of man's concern for weak and helpless life forms but, in today there is no Bapalal Modi left to show such concerns. But still, in the midstof the hustle and hustle of old Ahmedabad, they stand tall and majestically silently in their stoic grace and elegance.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


In our national anthem, we are all familiar with a word called ‘Utkala’, which is the other name of Orissa. Yet many of us may not know what does ‘Utkala’ means. ‘Utkala’ is a Sanskrit word which in Oriya means ‘Utkrustha Kala’ or the finest art suggesting Orissa as the land of fine art.
From one end to another, be it tribal or folk, Orissa is endowed with artisans and their art work. However, due to increased competition, lack of awareness and entrepreneurial skills many of Orissa’s artisans are in poor apathy. To give them opportunities Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation has come up with a project, which is unique in the country. The project is carried out through partnership with business houses to beautify Bhubaneswar, a major centre of historical temples and rock-cut caves, in the form of murals all along its wide roads, lanes, parks, premises of offices and housing colonies, museums and heritage zones.

As I landed in Bhubaneswar Airport from Mumbai on a Sunday April morning, my first glimpse of the city were the murals neatly painted on the walls of the airport road. The themes of the murals were amazing offering a glimpse to Orissa’s rich cultural heritage. The themes were as diverse as possible representing tribal life and customs, transition in tribal life, monuments, fairs and festivals, textiles, dance and music, handicrafts, historical events, martial tradition, and so on. The background colours of the murals were mostly terracotta and occasionally either white or blue. The murals display free hand paintings with a range of colours in accordance to the themes depicted in the murals.

Beautifying Bhubaneswar through murals was the brainchild of Aparajita Sarangi, the chairman of Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation. It is no doubt a bold initiative towards enhancing the urban aesthetic, which is steadily declining due to the lack of basic civic sense among most of the citizens. The other benefit is for the poor artists, who otherwise have been struggling for the right patronage. On my way to Forest Park, a posh locality of the city, I met an artist named Bhagwan Singh busied in painting a mural on the wall of the Biju Patnaik Park. I was told that about 300 artists from the local B.K. College of Art and Craft are involved in the project which helps them to earn a minimum of Rs. 5,000 per month.

The murals on the walls of the Forest Park Road depict a rich array of tribal life and customs Рtribal combs, forest life, harvesting, village market, tribal worship, dancing and singing, marriage, transport, mining, hunting and so on. From Forest Park I moved to Unit IV and walked along the newly developed Gangadhar Meher Road which leads to the upcoming IT city of Bhubaneswar. The main concentration of murals on this road was the area surrounding the Kalinga Stadium. The murals here showcase yet another range of Orissan cultural heritage. The walls are filled with murals depicting Sambalpuri, Manaibandhi and Bomkhai textile patterns and the range of Orissan jhotis (the Orissan version of South Indian rongoli, but only white colour is used in case of Orissan jotis). While walking on the road opposite the stadium wall towards Jaydev Vihar Square, it was a delight to see the depiction of Orissan festivals, such as Mana Osa (mostly carried out by the women folk for aspiring prosperity), Rath Yatra, Boita Bandana (a maritime festival), and so on, besides musical instruments, appliqu̩, wooden toys, patachitras, etc.

The museum of tribal art at CRP square beside the busy National Highway was yet another sight to see murals. Richly endowed with tribal motifs the walls of the museum offered a great sight. Even the trees in the premises of the museum are not left without paintings.

My next stop was at the foothill of Khandagiri and Udayagiri – the sight of the historic caves excavated by the Jain monarch Kharavela in the 1st century BC. What amazed me were the murals depicting Stone Age life painted beautifully on the surface of sandstone boulders. If not told one can easily miss-interpret them as the actual Stone Age paintings dating back to 10,000 BC.

Bhubaneswar has shown the way how urban aesthetic can be restored by showcasing the cultural heritage through murals. I am sure that other cities would also replicate this experiment while beautifying their roads. If it happens our cities would turn into open-air textbooks for learning India’s rich cultural diversity and heritage and at the same time also offering a subtle aesthetic experience.