Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Books: Beauty Should Be Part Of The Experience

I'm reading a book by M.C. Ricklefs, titled A History of Modern Indonesia Since c.1300, and if a book can make your blood boil, this one's certainly high on the list. Professor Ricklefs peppers his account of the exploitation, murder, and selling (and buying) of hundreds and thousands of Indonesian peasants, farmers, aristocrats, merchants, sailors, and fishermen with words like "compelled," as in "The Dutch were compelled" to put 20,000 people to death, or burn down cities in which men, women, and children alike, perished. (Note: paraphrase; emphasis mine.)

What compelled them, it appears, was the desire to fill their coffers with Indonesian gold, and monies earned from the wholesale theft of Indonesian pepper, tin, gambier, rice, cloves, mace, nutmeg, and human bodies. So their burning of clove plantations farmed by Indonesian peasants was "necessary" and "important," while the Indonesian resistance to such naked greed was "foolhardy" and marked by "deviousness" in breaking treaties in which all advantage accrued to the Dutch, and precious little to the indigenous people. Having forced the natives at gunpoint to send some 20 million per year (in modern terms probably something close to a half billion) to the "home country" (the home of the Dutch, that is), they then had the unmitigated gall to add to this "debt," which was negotiated by treaty, the additional cost of enforcing it. That is to say, they charged the Indonesians for the cost of Dutch military and arms required to subjugate the Indonesians in something close to, if not actually outright, slavery.

To his credit, Ricklefs has admitted that the so-called "Ethical Policy" of the Dutch which led them to stop slavery and the trade in human flesh was more honoured in the breach than in the practise; that is to say, when the bottom line was threatened, all ethical considerations flew out the window with unseemly haste. Moreover, the Governors General who "governed" the Indonesian colonies were current or former directors of Royal Shell, more interested in seizing the oil riches of Sumatra and monopolizing the spice trade than educating the "natives." How many Indonesians were exiled to Sri Lanka and Suriname and South Africa, we will never know. How many died there, unable to speak the language, friendless, betrayed, isolated, yearning for their beautiful and beloved homeland.

No wonder the Indonesians took their Independence from those wretched people with such rage, when they could. The miracle is that they did not slaughter outright every man, woman, and child of these shameless, greedy, exploitative bastard children of syphilitic turtles.

Pardon my French. Or should I say my Dutch.

In the event, it was absolutely necessary as soon as possible thereafter, to find something a tad more soothing, if you get my drift. One requires one's prandial excursions to be accompanied by things soothing to the soul. A pleasant glass of wine. A vase of flowers on the table. The strains of delightful music. A book to read betimes, one which, hopefully, calms the soul and aids the digestion.

Therefore I turned to the (borrowed, coveted, expensive, hard to obtain, but available here, if you want it) following book, to the delight of my soul and my digestion alike.

Luntaya acheiq, An Illustrated Book of Burmese Court Textiles

If you have the money to spend, you should buy this book. Of course, I'd prefer you buy it for ME, but I'm willing to concede that you probably don't know me. Buy it for yourself then, see if I care. Selfish lout.

Srsly. The photographs alone are worth the cost of the book, but it does include delightful information about the techniques used, Burmese costume, mythical birds, how to make dyes from rocks, bark, roots, and the like, and the history of silk. You, too, could have a better dining experience with this book carefully placed far away from any potential dangerous spills yet available to your feasting eyes. Everyone should read at least one beautiful book a year.

Did you know it takes 200 shuttles for the warp (or is it the weft?) of one of these incredible pieces of fabric featured in the book? It can take up to six months for two weavers to create a single longyi (the national garment of Burma, a simple, yet stunningly beautiful piece of fabric sewn into a tube and worn wrapped tightly around the waist). There's an interesting little digression into the nature of gold and silver tinseled thread, which is often used in the weaving, especially of the more formal garments; and the longyis worn for certain special Buddhist ceremonies are the most delightful shade of a wild, passionate pink. In fact, pink is too wussy a word to describe that hue. Let's call it a muted red, instead, with blue tones. Woof! (Or warp?)

Another book (which I did get my grubby little paws on) that lovers of the beautiful ought to break down and shell out the shekels for:

Nakshi Kantha of Bengal

There are many books available on Nakshi kantha, which is a Bengali folk art using embroidery to make recycling a beautiful thing. Basically, the art of nakshi kantha is mostly found in rural communities. When clothing such as saris and dhotis becomes too worn for wear any more, the ladies of the community cut out the most frayed and worn parts and incorporate the rest into a new article of great use: the nakshi kantha. They stitch together several layers of old saris or dhotis or a combination thereof, making an article of the softest cotton, but with some weight and heft, thanks to the number of layers used. Then they embroider the entire article, first with a border, which is often an elaborate sari border, sometimes with zari (gold or silver thread). The center of the piece hosts a scene from the needle artist's own life or a rural scene or whatever the artist wishes to create. Often, this includes, or centers upon, a tree-of-life, or a mandala. At the corners, the artist may position am-pata (mango leaf shapes, known as "paisley" to non-Indians), elaborately decorated. Depending on the artist, the piece may include appliqué. Shapes are outlined in darker or heavier stitch and filled in with delicate running stitches. Other types of stitch are also used.

An artist might include events from her own life, depending on the size of the piece; often women embroider kitchen implements, stoves, sacred words or objects, words of wisdom, expressions of affection, and the like. Sometimes they depict stylized elephants or peacocks, cows, birds, cats, chickens, and other elements of their everyday lives.

The finished product is most often used as a quilt, although smaller pieces are used to wrap religious books or gifts. Some end up on walls, as part of a family's history. Some of the more elaborate kanthas depict British soldiers confronting villagers. I'm sure there's a political history somewhere in there, if I can only uncover it.

The book, published in India, is filled with photographs of ancient and beautiful kanthas collected over several hundred years. It also includes some excellent modern examples of the art, which continues to flourish in the most lively manner in the current states of Bangladesh and West Bengal. Interspersed between the photographs (which alone are worth the price of the book) are discussions of the art of nakshi kantha, the lives of women in rural areas of Bengal, and other important historical and folkloric information.

Anyone who is feeling especially generous ought to buy me both books. Alternatively, buy them for yourself and write me about how you liked them.

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