History lessons in Anegundi

It has rained the night before. The smell of wet earth rises above the ground, mingling with the light breeze. The village is a splash of colour, painted walls of houses and tiny shops with garish boards out front advertising their wares. Animals and humans mingle with abandon. Away from the signs of inhabitation, it’s a long stretch of lush paddy fields, coconut trees, and an unchanging background of boulders. There are a few mantapas too, broken in places but still standing strong.    

This is Anegundi, once the capital of the Vijaynagara Empire and often called the cradle of the empire. Anegundi translates to elephant pit in Kannada, because it was where the elephants of Vijayanagara Empire were bathed. The village often loses out in popularity to its neighbour, Hampi. A pity because Anegundi is older; its history goes back 3,000 years.  

Anegundi is surrounded by hills on three sides, and the river Tungabadhra on one side. To get a glimpse of its past, I’ve to travel across a relatively new construction, the 14-pillar, 32-crore Hampi-Anegundi Bridge. It’s a smooth ride though without the charm associated with the usual mode of transportation, a coracle ride.

The first thing that arrests my attention is a man decked in gold. A closer look reveals the actor Rajkumar. It’s supposed to be Krishnadevaraya but it is modeled on the actor who played the king in a movie.

Behind him is the main gate of the city, Modalane Bagilu (First Gate).  On entering the gate, my first stop is Gagan Mahal or Old Palace, which was built in the 16th century. It was where the royal family once lived and today serves as an administrative building. It is shut when I visit so I wander outside, admiring the Indo-Islamic architecture and its similarity to the Lotus Mahal in Hampi. Nearby is a banana fibre workshop run by the Kishkinda Trust. They teach women in the village to use the bark of the banana plant to make rope, which is then woven into runners, carpets, mats, bags, tablecloths and even coasters. It’s interesting to watch the women at work, their hands moving as if of their own accord while they chat quietly among themselves.  

banana fibre workshop

Everything I discover in Anegundi is deserving of attention but doesn’t outright seek it.    

Keeping watch on my movements in the village is the Anjaneya or Anjanadri Hill. If Anegundi is believed to be the monkey kingdom of Kishkindha, then Anjanadri is believed to be the birth place of Hanuman. The hill is accessible by steps and is home to a temple. It’s a good location from which to view the ruins in Hampi. Another guardian on high is the Anegundi fort, which now serves as design inspiration to luxury hotels like Evolve Back nearby.

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Anjanadri Hill

The Bukka aqueduct is another architectural marvel, a bridge like aqueduct standing over a nearly dry stream. The granite structure, which consists of slabs of stone piled high, speaks of the irrigation system of the Vijayanagara rulers, which kept the lands fertile and supplied water to the many palaces. The Sanapur Lake is a more recent water attraction, created by an irrigation reservoir, and best experienced via a coracle ride. It has sweeping views of banana and rice plantations on one side, and boulder-strewn hills on the other.  

It is amid these hills that I come across the oldest structure in the area. A few kilometres away from Anegundi is the pre-historic site of Onake Kindi. The naturally secluded area – there’s a ring of boulders enclosing an expanse of shrubbery and trees – is home to rock paintings dating back to the Iron Age. The white and pink paintings showcase the life of those times – a funeral procession, sun and stars, animals, dances and hunting scenes. There’s even a long cobra, with a realistic hood that looks ready to strike.    

It appears that people in the olden days wanted to share their lives with us, through their art. Anegundi is where these stories come to life.  

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Smoker’s Corner bookstore: Stories in the dust

A leering Shah Rukh Khan greets me as I enter the foyer of Botawala Chambers in Fort, Mumbai. The buzz from outside – vehicles honking, people gossiping at the cigarette store on the corner and pedestrians walking – instantly recedes. At the same time, the temperature appears to drop a degree. This, of course, has nothing to do with the actor or the women he shares a magazine cover with.

I’m at Smoker’s Corner Bookstore – a place that gets its name from the sailors who used to come by and stock up on tobacco and cigarettes at the tobacconist just outside the building. Now, they’re just ordinary people smoking around the corner. If I breathe in deeply enough, I can smell the cigarette smoke beyond the mustiness.

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The bookstore has no space – barring the stairs and a rickety chair – to sit and read.

This used to be a library but, there’s no board pointing out the name of the place or offering titles at discount; there’s no one to welcome us into the space; and there’s no
registry of what’s available. It’s just a collection of dusty wooden shelves and stands decorating the lobby of the building and two small rooms at the side. It appears as if someone just took a collection of books and hastily laid them out on shelves and stands. It’s hot and stuffy.

It wasn’t always this way.

The book Zero Point Bombay: In and Around Horniman Circle shares a note about the origin of the 
bookstore. In 1954, the proprietor Suleman Botawala took over the tobacco shop and filled it with books, turning it into a library. Botawala was pursuing his passion for books and reading, and over the years, built up a steady clientele of readers. He passed away in 2009 and since then, the place has lost its sheen and presumably, given the empty shelves, its customers.

The available books number to less than a 1,000 and are a motley collection. They’re scattered across two wooden stands in the middle, glass shelves hugging the walls, and two little rooms (alcoves) on the side. Some of them are tied with thread, to keep their pages together and to keep them from falling off the stands.

My favourite part about visiting this bookstore is I never know what I will find, what treasure I can take back home for a mere Rs 50. Finding that one book, however, necessitates my walking through all the sections, combing through the titles. The fashion and news magazines are the only issues up to date editions; everything else is older than me, and secondhand. There’s a selection of picture books on the royal family (back when Lady Diana was alive and part of it); fairytales for children; a Dr Who collection; Bible studies; magazines with advice on enameling, raising a child, and being a good granny; and unusual self help books such as How to Eat Worms.

As with any other old bookstore, I spy an assortment of romantic titles, with author’s names in embossed gold and postcard perfect pictures of fields and castles promising compelling love stories. There’s a nice nostalgia section for 90s kids like me with books on Destiny’s Child, Olsen twins, once upon a time Bond girl Halle Berry, and Reader’s Digest back issues.

As I go though the books, people walk past me, without a second glance. The place has become part of the wall, unseen by those who see it daily but rich in character for other like me. I try and imagine it as a buzzing place at one time, with readers crowding around shelves eager to pick up the latest sports magazine or bestseller. It’s difficult because Smoker’s Corner wears an air of neglect that’s hard to shake off.

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Exposed wires, dusty books, creaking shelves – the place has a general air of neglect.

Suleman’s son Zubair now looks after the store, as a way of remembering his father. He isn’t around when I visit but the man at the counter, who makes notes of our purchases in a ledger, assures me he does spends time here.

I pick up a book called Foetal Attraction whose reviews call it ‘screamingly funny’, the diary of Anakin Skywalker (in case I ever do decide to start reading Star Wars), and mystery novel by the founder of Scientology, L Ron Hubbard.

As we leave, my friend and I pause for a moment outside, trying to cool down. My friend lights up a cigarette. He is no sailor but this seems fitting tribute for a bookstore indirectly dedicated to smokers.

 

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I picked up seven books for Rs 400 only. Photos courtesy: Danish Bagdadi.

Smoker’s Corner is situated at Botawala Chambers, Sir PM Road, Fort; call 2216 4060; closed on Sundays; prices start at Rs 30.

The story was written for and originally published in The City Story.

Still life in Prague

It isn’t often that I see naked men on the street. These two stand proud in the courtyard of the museum dedicated to Franz Kafka. The tourists milling about aren’t interested in learning about the life of the tortured genius. Their voyeurism is basic. They watch in delight as the men move their bronze penises to spell out quotes from famous city residents. On moving closer, I realise the men are urinating into a puddle shaped like the map of the Czech Republic.

‘The Piss’ is one of the more whimsical works of contemporary and controversial artist, David Černý. When it was created in 2004, many said he was showing his displeasure at his country joining the European Union. Others said it was a reference to the many invaders in Czech history. I soon learn that the artist, like his mechanical figures, enjoys pissing people off.

Černý’s art is a social commentary and the city of his birth, Prague, is his playground.

The Czech capital is rich in historic imagery, from the Baroque statues that line Charles Bridge to the horse-riding monument at Wenceslas Square. The public art at Prague’s squares, parks and streets is alternative and experimental, amusing and irreverent, playful and provocative.

A troubled past

On a narrow alleyway near the Old Town Square, a glance upward reveals the figure of a man about to commit suicide. This is the ‘Man Hanging Out’, or what the locals call ‘Hanging Man’. Another Černý special, it has a bearded Sigmund Freud hanging by his right hand, at the end of a beam. This sculpture hints at the hopelessness of the psychoanalyst’s life and his phobia of dying. The other meaning is more symbolic. Černy called Freud “the intellectual face of the 20th century” and perhaps, this is the artist’s way of pondering the role of intellectuals in this century.

Hanging man
The Hanging Man is such a lifelike figure that when it was first put up, local police got a lot of calls about a man committing suicide.

I leave Freud hanging and head out in search of another troubled genius. Self-doubt and depression had plagued Kafka all his life. Černý represents this through an 11-m, 45-tonne stainless-steel kinetic bust of the writer. The ‘Head of Franz Kafka’ rests near the office where he was a clerk. The head consists of 42 motorised layers that move independently, metamorphosing into the writer’s face only for a split second.

Another strange tribute to Kafka lies in the old Jewish Quarter, in the neighbourhood where he lived, worked and wrote. In it, sculptor Jaroslav Róna has a mini version of the writer riding on the shoulders of an empty suit, a reference to a passage in Kafka’s short story, Description of a Struggle. It’s a surreal tribute, slightly ruined by tourists touching the statue’s feet and sitting on each other’s shoulders, mimicking the pose. I wonder if it would depress Kafka to see this base devaluation of art.

Kafka monument
“I leapt onto the shoulders of my acquaintance, and by digging my fists into his back I urged him into a trot..”

In the streets of Mala Strana or Lesser Quarter is a monument that truly does depress. At the base of Petřín Hill, I climb the stairs to find six naked figures. Unlike the gleeful naked men in ‘The Piss’, these men are zombie-like, their faces a mask of pain and despair. This is Czech sculptor Olbram Zoubek’s ‘Memorial to the Victims of Communism’. The six figures, in different stages of disintegration, descend a flight of stairs. A bronze strip tells us of the losses — 205,486 arrested; 170,938 forced into exile; 4,500 dead in prisons; 327 shot while trying to flee and 248 executed. Only one figure is whole; the rest are missing body parts, and the last one has just limbs. For a monument that’s a sombre reminder of the perils of despotism, the setting couldn’t be more picturesque — the surrounding garden and paths are blooming with colour.

Local legends

The most scenic view is at Prague’s oldest bridge, the Charles Bridge. I weave my way through street musicians, artists and selfie-sticks to admire the 30 Baroque statues lining its balustrade. I’m searching for a legend, which I find at the feet of the statue of St John of Nepomuk. John was a priest in Prague, under King Wenceslas IV. He was thrown into the river for refusing to divulge the queen’s confessions to the king, who suspected her of having an affair. It is believed that touching the plaque commemorating his martyrdom brings good luck. The brass portion I run my hand over is smooth, and gleams bright against the blackened surroundings. Nearby is a plaque of a dog, whose shining body indicates that it also receives attention.

St John statue
Locals dismiss this legend associated with the statue putting it down to a tourists phenomenon.

My favourite legend in the city involves a statue of a ghost. This creepy cloaked figure sits outside the Estates Theater in the Old Town, where composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart conducted the première of his opera Don Giovanni in 1787. The creation of Austrian artist Anna Chromy, it is said to represent the opera’s character, Il Commendatore, who appears as a ghost.

The cloaked figure has no face and is empty inside, possibly an allusion to the emptiness of Don Giovanni’s soul. Local legend has it that pictures taken without a flash reveal the image of a face inside the empty cloak. My photos reveal nothing but a black hole but I revel in the possibility of a spectre haunting this ghostly figure.

Il Commendatore
The artist created a similar Cloak of Peace (Pieta) in Salzburg.

 

It’s what makes Prague a fascinating city. Every statue has a story to tell, even if some are more believable than others.