I’m a literature nerd, as I realise today. And an arts nerd as well. Have always been.
How do I know? It’s the way I go on about this painting or that book, for hours, as if people with job worries and child worries and health worries are dying to know why the dog is such a ubiquitous presence in Canaletto’s pictures. Yes, Antonio Canal (1697–1768), of the Venice and London fame. He’s got a man piddling against a wall right next to the canal grande in one of those panoramas – or should we say vistas of Venice? Made me think of Kolkata. No wonder: my mother saw the photos I’d taken of the backstreets (back canals? Bacchanals? Sorry, nerd joke) of Venice and said they looked just like the flooded lanes and bylanes of North Calcutta during the rains.
To return to the canine, Canaletto’s dogs litter his fantasy landscapes as well. And stray dogs seem to have been as common on San Marco square in Canaletto’s day as they were in Kolkata in mine. Rembrandt’s etching of the Good Samaritan from 1633 has a dog shitting in the foreground, right on the doorstep. All these dogs and dog-lovers of the seventeeth and eighteenth centuries make me thoughtful.
And the thought is spelt out in bold letters right on top of this blog: Realism is magic. I wanted to have that as my motto or my credo or whatever – where do all these Latin words come from? Ask a nerd. The first characteristic of this particular literary and arty-farty nerd that we’re talking about (ahem, there’s modesty for you) was that he fell in love with realism at an early age – shortly after Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum (1959) and years before Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981). In other words, I said no to magic realism and proclaimed – to myself – that realism is magic. At least all the magic that I needed. And it’s remained that way ever since.
I did not even realise that I was falling in love with Europe at the same time, because this is the continent where realism was born (leaving out palaeolithic cave and rock paintings for the moment), especially in the arts, visual as well as the plastic arts such as painting and sculpture – look at Greek sculpture or its Roman counterpart. Go to the Duomo di Pisa – the Pisa cathedral – and you’ll see in the murals near the altar how the Middle Ages are straining towards the Renaissance by becoming more realistic. And then there’s that explosion called the Renaissance, my favourite being the English one in terms of literature and the Florentine one in terms of sculpture and painting.
What did you say? Nothing? I distinctly heard you mutter: ‘Nerd.’
Realism is perspective, of course, which means geometry, will blow your mind to realise just how much! And then you’ll have to read about Brunelleschi’s two-point peep-shows and Masolino’s St. Peter Healing a Cripple (1425) and about Raphael, above all Raphael. You’ll be told that it took nearly 400 years to understand the intricacies of perspective – by which time you’d have landed among the Impressionists! And if realism is a flowering tree, then Impressionism is its cherry-pink-and-apple-blossom-white; Impressionism is the short and tantalisingly beautiful springtime of realism (which includes naturalism, of course, so far as I am concerned). Impressionist paintings represent the Europe that I fell in love with, coming from a land of symbolic and decorative art as I do, both highly stylised. I fell in love with the Europe where realism was king as well as emperor – with or without clothes, new as well as old.
The joke is that if you look at the best of Bengali or Hindi literature, especially in the prose form, especially the novels and the short stories from the first six decades of the twentieth century, you’ll realise that realism has been king in India too – but mainly in literature. Modern Indian painting made the transition to the abstract a bit too soon, I feel.
What? Have I finished? Yes, I am done, you can go and watch The Big Bang Theory now. But remember what I was trying to tell you: Delhi consists of nine cities built on top of each other, they tell me. Europe is just like that, only that all those cities seem to have survived, often side by side. You can visit them and compare the slightly pink Candoglia marble on the façade of the Milan cathedral with the white sang-i-marmar of the Taj Mahal, if you’re that kind of a nerd.
Which you’re not, I’m sure. So how come you read this blog to the end?