G C Lichtenberg: “It is as if our languages were confounded: when we want a thought, they bring us a word; when we ask for a word, they give us a dash; and when we expect a dash, there comes a piece of bawdy.”

W H Auden: "But in my arms till break of day / Let the living creature lie. / Mortal, guilty, but to me/ The entirely beautiful."

Will Self: “To attempt to write seriously is always, I feel, to fail – the disjunction between my beautifully sonorous, accurate and painfully affecting mental content, and the leaden, halting sentences on the page always seems a dreadful falling short. It is this failure – a ceaseless threnody keening through the writing mind – that dominates my working life, just as an overweening sense of not having loved with enough depth or recklessness or tenderness dominates my personal one.”

John Gray: "Unlike Schopenhauer, who lamented the human lot, Leopardi believed that the best response to life is laughter. What fascinated Schopenhauer, along with many later writers, was Leopardi’s insistence that illusion is necessary to human happiness."

Art Spiegelman: "You know words in a way are hitting you on the left side of your brain, music and visual arts hit on the right side of the brain, so the idea is to pummel you, to send you from left brain to right brain and back until you're as unbalanced as I am."

विलास सारंग: "संदर्भ कुठलेही असोत, संस्कृत, इंग्रजी, बुद्धिवादी, तांत्रिक, इतिहासाचे, खगोलशास्त्राचे, आधुनिक पदार्थविज्ञानाचे, शिवकालीन व पेशवाईतील बखरीचे, अगणित ज्ञानक्षेत्रांचे, अशा वैविध्यपूर्ण ज्ञानावर लेखन- विशेषत: कवितालेखन- उभं राहत."

Sunday, January 20, 2013

My Morbid Fascination With Caravaggio's Head That Goes On Living



David Arnold, The Times Literary Supplement, July 2009:

"People lose their heads quite often in Hindu mythology. On a father’s whim, a son cuts off his mother’s head; demons are decapitated to expel the chaos-threatening poison lurking in their throats; the fidelity of wives and the faith of devotees are tested by beheading; and, in the rituals myth sustains, animals lose their heads to satisfy sacrificial imperatives. But, as Wendy Doniger reassures us in her courageous and scholarly book, in Hindu myth “beheading is seldom fatal”. Nor is it without meaning and purpose, for decapitation proves a means of achieving a creative fusion between apparently incongruous parts. Heads are restored, but they are also misplaced... "

Severing heads of the dead enemy soldiers? I thought it was so medieval. People who did that to the late Lance Naik Hemraj Singh's body must be severely punished.

The Indian Express, January 16 2013:

"Earlier in the day, (Sushma) Swaraj, who visited Lance Naik Hemraj Singh’s family in Mathura, was quoted by PTI as saying that “if his (Hemraj’s) head could not be brought back, we should get at least 10 heads from their side”. Swaraj was accompanied by BJP president Nitin Gadkari and Rajnath Singh."

But look at the reaction of the lady who could be India's future Prime Minister: "at least 10 heads from their side." Any less medieval?

Business Standard's leader on January 15 2013:

"News TV's martial music drowns out its responsibilities...It should go without saying that the media has a role in informing and educating a citizenry about the issues of the day, providing background, context and holding the powerful to account. A case study in how not to go about this is currently being provided by the electronic media in its coverage of recent raids and counter-raids on the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir, in which two Indian soldiers have been killed, and one allegedly subjected to post-mortem mutilation. Instead of questioning the narrative, news television and some print outlets have instead blatantly beaten the drums of confrontation, hyping even relatively calm statements by the army chief into belligerent displays of national machismo."

On December 7 1760, just before the third battle of Panipat that was fought on January 14 1761, Maratha chieftain Balwantrao Mehendale (बळवंतराव मेहेंदळे) was killed by the enemy. The enemy wanted to sever his head and present it to their leadership. A few brave Maratha soldiers prevented that from happening and his whole body was brought back to the camp.

(Read a related post on the subject here.)

Cutting enemy heads was almost the norm then. Maratha armies too occasionally indulged in the practice. 

Last year a book titled "The Severed Head: Capital Vision" by Julie Kristeva, translated by Jody Gladding was published. It's about the way in which the severed head pops up in art, literature and real life.



Part of its fascination lies in the way it seems to offer a physical location for where our true self resides. Our face is what makes us knowable in the social world, our brain is what tells us who we are, and our speaking mouth is the conduit between the two. Lose our heads and we have lost everything, which is why the fact that we can come apart so easily is terrifying. It also explains a certain morbid fascination with how long a head can go on living after it has been severed."

Of all the books I read in my childhood, I remember those most which had memorable pictures. I have already  mentioned a few of them before.

One such book was "Sheesamarthcharitramrut" (श्रीसमर्थचरित्रामृत).

It claims to be a biography of Samarth Ramdas (समर्थ रामदास) told through stories. It's 159 pages long and was published in 1958, 350th birth anniversary year of Samarth. Luckily, I still have it with me.

I must have read it dozens of times. I once knew almost all of its text by heart but I now only remember its pictures.

They were drawn by Chitrakalabhushan Mr. J B Dikshit (चित्रकलाभूषण श्री. जि. भि. दीक्षित). Mr. Dixit's contribution has been generously acknowledged by the editor of the book in the foreword.

It has a couple of pictures of severed head of Bholaram (भोळाराम), disciple of Samarth. They scared me a bit tn the beginning but I guess they also increased the book's appeal to the child in the long run.


'Bholaram cuts off his own head' 

 The story of Bholaram of course is a folktale/myth as are most of them in the collection.

In 17th century Maharashtra severed head was not all that bizarre. As seen earlier, one reads in battles involving Maratha armies,  how the victors cut off the heads of the vanquished and carried them as trophies.

Battle was such an accepted motif then that even Tukaram (तुकाराम) says:

"वेढा वेढा रे पंढरी । मोर्चे लावा भीमातिरीं ॥1॥
चलाचला संत जन । करा देवासी भांडण ॥ध्रु.॥
लुटालुटा पंढरपूर। धरा रखुमाइऩचा वर ॥2॥
तुका ह्मणे चला । घाव निशानी घातला॥3॥"
 
(#3970, Gatha गाथा)
 
(Hey besiege besiege Pandharpur, erect barricades (open fronts) on the banks of Bhima
come come devotees,  spar with the god
Plunder, plunder Pandharpur, detain the husband of Rakhumai
Tukaram says let's go, we have hit the target)
 


I wonder if Mr. Dixit saw or studied the following picture
 
 


David with the Head of Goliath, 1609–1610

Artist:  Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

"Perhaps the most powerful and personal work that Caravaggio completed during his final months in Naples is his David with the Head of Goliath. Everything that Caravaggio knew about youth and age, cruelty and compassion, life and death, sex and suffering, has been poured, without hesitation or holding back, into this image of the delicate boy—probably the same one who modeled for the brooding Saint John the Baptist now in Rome’s Galleria Borghese-  holding, at arm’s length, the head of the the bearded, shaggy, middle-aged man whom he has slain. The head of Goliath is Caravaggio’s last self-portrait. His features are thick and misshapen. One of his eyelids droops. On his forehead is a bloody wound, presumably the mark of the fatal stone from David’s slingshot, but which also suggests the disfiguring injuries the painter received when he was attacked at the Osteria del Cerriglio in Naples.,,

...Death has already frozen Goliath’s features into a rigid, Medusa-like mask, and what’s most disturbing is that death has given him no peace, no relief, no release from the agony and horror of his dying moments, from the shock of having been murdered by a boy so much like the youths whom, in more peaceful and less desperate times, Caravaggio would have loved."

(from 'Caravaggio /  Painter of Miracles' by Francine Prose)

I have quoted above: "how long a head can go on living after it has been severed.".... Caravaggio's head still lives!

p.s

After I published this post, I got this feedback in Marathi from a discerning reader of this blog Mr. Mangesh Nabar:

"
In case, you are not able to read Gurucharitra, I am giving below the lines from 6th Adhyay :
सुटला तेथुनि लंकेश्वर I स्तोत्र करीतसे अपार I शीर छेदोनि धरिले करी I  तंतु लाविले नीज अंत्रे II ४० II
सुटका झाल्यावर रावणाने शंकराची विविध प्रकारे स्तुति केली. आपल्या दहा डोक्यातील एक डोके कापले, त्याला तंबो-यासारखा आकार देऊन व आपल्या आतड्यांचाच तारेसारखा उपयोग करून सुस्वर गायनाने तो शंकराचे स्तवन करू लागला... 
शिर कापून आपुले देखा I यंत्र केले करकमळीका I नर काढून तंतुका I रावणेश्वर गातसे II ७२ II
अर्थाचा संदर्भ :- भावार्थ श्रीगुरुचरित्र - डॉ. सी.ग. देसाई"

I thought this was very beautiful and hence am appending it here.