Archive | March 2017

Catch – as – Catch Can

Excitement is soaring for high-class racing action in Dubai where horses are a passion. This excitement is hardly surprising in the Arabian Peninsula – the region from where the pure-bred Arab stock had emerged to become lauded as the oldest of the world’s recognised breeds – their influence in creation of the Thoroughbred generally acknowledged all over the world.

A land of startling contrasts, Dubai of United Arab Emirates, has, years on, offered a sparkling calendar of interesting equestrian pursuits and leisure activities such as courses for riding skills, show-jumping, dressage, polo, horse riding trips, etc, through its various clubs and stables. The Dubai World Cup (DWC) 2017 will take place on Saturday, March 25 at Meydan Racecourse where the 2017 DWC Carnival is underway.

As for me, UAE is the region in which I had flown in the most number of times, for short visits and transit – like drive traffic, all stop and go, since I very often flew with regional Airlines from the early-nineties – a silent witness to the city’s astonishing growth to today’s modern metropolis, Dubai (which I was told is a mixed Farsi and Arabic word meaning literally, two sides of the water. I have also heard its meaning being referred to the Hindi words “Do – bhaee” (Two – Brothers)! Few documents may exist before 1799 when the local inhabitants were primarily engaged in fishing and harvesting pearls. But at the creek of Dubai, one can still see the big wooden dhows and smaller, short-keeled sambuqs.

Of the many activities complementing the Dubai World Cup is a Solo Show by Said Atabekov, the internationally renowned Uzbekistan born contemporary artist, who now lives and works in Kazakhstan.

Titled “66 Lbs”, Atabekov’s show featuring photo, video and site installation, can be viewed at Andakulova Gallery (Unit 18, P4 Level, Damac Park Towers DIFC) in Dubai during March 06th – May 12th, 2017. What attracted me to this show is not simply because it featured horses.

With a good number of original “sporting art” also bolstering our love of arts, paintings of sedate hunting or race horses are not alien to our house. From the horse’s first appearance in a convincing anatomical form in an Assyrian bas-relief of the seventh century BC, at length, it has been an inspiration in all forms of arts and later in literature for the majesty and grace of this spirited animal “par excellence”. Over time, many terms sprang out of its name: horse-radish, horse-parsley, horse mushroom, iron horse, pale horse, white horse, brazen horse, wooden horse, Trojan horse, horse bridge, horse-power, horse trading, …..

The largest physiques of horses I have come across, to name but a few, are the set of four horses (Triumphal Quadriga) at Basilica di San Marco in Venice; the wooden horse inside il Salone of the Palazzo della Ragione; Donatello’s equestrian statue of Gattamelata on Piazza del Santo (both in Padua); and such other statues in many piazzas and squares in Europe.

According to classical mythology, Poseidon created the horse. Indeed, from the domestication of the horse, possibly by the tribes of the steppes flanking the Caspian Sea thousands of years ago, the horse has been the friend and companion of man, prized for his beauty, loved for his docility. Eaten, sacrificed, worshipped, it gradually became a means of transport, communication and of horseback conquest in the heroic age. As a story goes, in the early centuries before Jesus Christ, when the Greeks colonised Southern Italy and brought in thousands of horses, the luxurious people of Sybaris trained all their horses to dance to the sound of music – of flutes in particular. Then again, there was also a time when some were addicted to the atrocious practice of sacrificing live horses to their gods or bury them with their masters.

The show’s distinctiveness is the bridge the artist has built between the past and the present with strong images that resonate with tradition – with emphasis on the ancient nomadic game of Kokpar of Kazakhstan. A primitive version of polo, played in two considerably different forms: tudabarai and qarajai, the game Kokpar  has two (or more) teams on horseback competing to pick a headless goat carcass off the ground (zamin-gir) without dismounting or snatch it from someone else at full gallop (chakka-gir) and carry it over the goal line. Usually, the credit for best horsemanship, strength and courage goes to the winning team.

Being aware of this as I am – it is gross the way it sounds. But the element of my main interest in this equestrian sport, part of the cultural backbone of some countries, is merely the nomadic tradition and the strict set of rules it accentuates. According to this solo show, the mandatory weight of the animal carcass used for the game which is fixed as 66 Lbs – hence, the title of this Show.

The Kazakh horses are traditionally an ancient breed originally bred in that region and are exceptionally hardy and competent to withstand extreme climatic conditions. Kokpar (known in a variety of names or simply as “catch-as-catch can”) of the Central Asian countries is one of the games fostered not only out of necessity – but also for recreation as well. The game, which probably owes it origins to the period of reign of the Macedonian king Alexander the Great (B: 356 BC – D: 323 BC) or Genghis Khan (B: 1162 – D: 1227) of the Mongol Empire, or to the Turkic-Mongol people, is part of the contests devised to provide, in times of peace, excitement as well as to retain fitness, readiness and skill of horse and horsemen for sudden deployment in unexpected wars. Such activities also aided to counter their boredom resulting from specific exercise in one place.

Specialization in such games enabled the noblest horse and its valiant rider to attain mutual equilibrium as one unit – as can be visualised in the artistic depiction of half-man and half-horse – the fabulous centaur of Greek mythology – the fusion where man dominates mentally and dictates the strategies taking advantage of the obedience, physical strength and exceptional memory of the horse – a feat attained from the animal owing to kind and patient training.

Whereas, in the mounted folk game of Kokpar, known in Afghanistan as Buzkashi (buz, a goat and kashidan, to pull) (Mongolian baz-kiri), the goat (or calf) carcass is the objective for the contesting buzkashi riders (chapandazan) who to carry it off to a “goal”.

The 51-year old artist Atabekov has captured the vibes and thrill of Kokpar by actually riding amidst the two teams of powerful masculine participants on powerful horses – his camera mopping up their emotions, vanity, endurance and the intensity of their action in all its complexity.

The mayhem of lurching, rearing, bumping, kicking, biting, leering, cursing in the midst of dust, noise and sweat as it happens when they engage in grapple from each other in fierce competitive spirit, sometimes (unintentionally!) hitting out at the opponents (not at their horses) with their camchin (buzkashi whip with wooden handle). In his relentless effort, the artist has endeavoured to draw attention of the viewer to the game and spirit of Kokpar and the national sport of Kazakhstan.

Back to you…soon. Jo

The concluding instalment of this two-part serial will follow.

Notes:

  1. The horse in the title header is one of those stationed by the Colosseum of Roma, Italy
  2. My thanks are particularly due to Karen Fernandez, Andakulova Gallery, Dubai for her interest and the pictures and in-put on the artist.

(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

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Heirlooms – On Memory Trail

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Concluding instalment of the two-part serial: Heirlooms – Old Habits Die Hard

Whenever we travel to countries where we have consolidated friendships, we often get the wonderful chance to attend parties. To be honest, when I am away from home, I would rather be a guest there than a host.

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Some fifteen years ago, attending a dinner party in the house of a Singapore businessman I know in a professional capacity, I had the opportunity to see some fine examples of old walnut, and mahogany cabinets of his Indonesian ancestors, dating back to the 18th century.

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Whenever I popped over to Singapore, a country of gentle memories for me, we would set aside business interests and shared wonderful dinner time when he would bring his personal histories up to date. A sparkling personality, whenever he spoke, he had that confident reassuring voice you feel when an aircraft pilot speaks before the take-off.

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Once, I got so engrossed in the history of Dutch Batavia and romance of each cabinet (couple of them were in marquetry) explained by my friend that our earlier conversation about Australian Aboriginal breast-plates was completely overridden in his talk. It was real pleasure to closely see those lovely “conversation pieces” and perceive how his narrations about family possessions developed as an acute reminder of the joys and fascinations of collecting.

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Romance and antique collecting go hand in hand. Speaking about Fort Cochin in our local grounds, an area which had experienced Portuguese/Dutch/English settlement since 1500s, old reputed (especially Anglo-Indian) families of Fort Cochin once had many valuable possessions reminiscent of that era.

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These heirlooms had pride of place in their living room as something that is functional and to enhance the home and status. Many early family heirlooms such as old furniture, Christian figures, wall carvings, photo frames, porcelain, books, bric-a-brac, have, over the years, been lost due to negligence, lack of proper antique restorers, shifting of residence or on the open market – some of which can still be found in those local don’t-touch-or-we’ll-make-you-pay sort of places in Jew Town. However, for most of such families, besides the traditional recipes from that bygone era, a Bible or framed photos of ancestors, family photo albums or a wedding dress or similar has always retained their charm as heirlooms.

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8Having recognised the value of their possessions in context with the settlements, I believe there are still those few who had refrained from throwing out a potential pot of gold. They have retained them for their descendants in perpetuity.

In the future, those items must become worth more for sheer rarity, apart from its association with our past. Who knows what things scorned today will be tomorrow’s highly prized?

The possessions in our home which we consider precious could not all be of great monetary value but nevertheless remain priceless to us. One of the near recent additions is an early 19th century Bible, quite bulky and slightly soiled, which we acquired from an antique seller in Portobello Road near Notting Hill Gate in London.

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Even though we had to pay through the nose to acquire it, that was less worrying compared to the effort it took to bring it home to Cochin since, during that trip, we had to traverse in a pre-scheduled journey by Eurotrain to Paris, and to Milan, to Padua, to Florence, to Rome and home via Dubai. Having brought home under the stewardship of our daughter Bianca, its arrival here was met with such greater happiness that all those hardships seemed insignificant.

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For ages, the Bible, the world’s most famous book, has not only earned its place as an important family heirloom, but has gained an accretion of ceremonial use. The last time we saw the images of couple of Bibles together was on the television when beautiful Melania Trump’s hands held two Bibles upon which her husband, President-elect Donald John Trump took the ceremonial oath of office as the 45th President of the United States of America, on January 20, 2017.

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I understand that the bigger Bible, an 1853 King James version bound in burgundy velvet with metal trim, which rested directly on soon-to-be First Lady Melania’s right palm belonged to President Abraham Lincoln upon which he was sworn in for his first inauguration in 1861. The smaller one on the top belonged to President Trump, gifted to him by his beloved mother on June 12, 1955.

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If that smaller Bible has not already been regarded as a family heirloom, the occasion of that swearing-in ceremony has no doubt catapulted its transition into one. Maybe, that Bible would eventually be passed over to one of President Trump’s children – probably to his youngest son.

5The strength of a nation lies in the individual. And the people are progressive. Who can predict now the chance that, probably many years into the future, on a January 20th, that son himself may stand tall at the same spot where his father had stood at the west front of the Capitol in last January, with his left palm resting on his heirloom Bible.

Predictions are difficult. Going forward, only God knows who has more than a walk-on-part in history. So this is faith. Until next time, Jo

PS: Dear reader, this article about family heirlooms is definitely apolitical.

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(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)