Wednesday, April 25, 2018

On Tree Sculptures at Lalbagh, Bangalore: In Hyperallergic

A short piece on the sculptures that artists made out of fallen trees in Lalbagh was published on April 16, 2018 on Hyperallergic. It also had lots of photos.

See the article here with photos or read below. 

A Botanic Garden Invited Artists to Transform Centuries-Old Trees Felled by a Storm

BENGALURU, India — Summer hadn’t officially turned the corner yet, but the sun still bore down heavy on the morning in February when I took myself to Lalbagh Botanical Gardens, one of this city’s famous ‘lung spaces.’ It was perfect ice cream weather; the right time of the day, too, when the picnickers were still several hours away and the gardens were mostly empty, save some teenage couples cutting college to cuddle under the wide old trees and tourists checking a quick walk through the gardens off their to-do lists. The gardeners and other employees of the government-run Lalbagh were still recovering from the just-concluded annual flower show, a biannual extravaganza that brings several hundred thousand people to the 240-acre gardens. I was looking for a set of wood sculptures that had been on the local news for having been made out of centuries-old trees that fell during a storm a few months earlier.

The gardens’ famed Glass House, built with cast iron from Glasgow, was still strewn with the remnants of the flower show displays. Visitors walking through the building were still posing for selfies in front of the cast-aside parts of the big show. My interest lay in what was behind the Glass House; two women taking a break from watering the bright yellow and pink flowers that line the lawn pointed me toward the sculptures. Just behind the majestic building is a long pathway that leads up to one of the towers erected 400 years ago by Kempe Gowda, the founder of Bengaluru, on rocks that are among the oldest on earth. The path is flanked on both sides by bamboo balustrades painted green that now enclose the recent wood sculptures.

In October of last year, one of the storms that regularly lash Bengaluru felled many large trees, some of them over 200 years old. The usual practice is that the horticulture department that manages Lalbagh and other similar gardens in the city would auction or sell off the deadwood to timber merchants and wood dealers to be chopped up and carted away with no sentiment for the trees’ provenance. This time, owing to the antiquity of some of the trees, the department made a decision to get artists to turn them into sculptures that would be housed in the gardens for public display. The upcycling initiative aimed to retain and refashion a piece of Lalbagh’s illustrious history.

Commissioned in 1760 by Hyder Ali, a ruler who remains known for fiercely fighting the British along with his son Tipu Sultan, Lalbagh — literally meaning “red gardens” — was completed by the son. It was declared a botanical garden in 1856 and has thousands of very big, very old trees in hundreds of species that were introduced from elsewhere in the world by both state rulers and then later by the British. Built along the lines of Mughal gardens that were popular and in fashion in the subcontinent in the 18th century, Lalbagh’s current acreage also holds a vast lake, many rare trees, and several monuments, while also supporting extensive biodiversity.

A 250-year old mango tree, purportedly planted by Tipu Sultan himself to commemorate his birthday, was among the dozen or so old trees that fell due to last year’s rains. The gardens’ management approached the Karnataka Shilpakala Academy, the sculpture section of the state department of culture, to help put together a list of artists from across Karnataka state and elsewhere in the country to turn the mango and other trees into sculptures. Some 60 artists from Shantiniketan, Baroda, West Bengal, Hyderabad, Mumbai, and several towns in Karnataka responded to the call and worked on transforming the downed trees.

Among the sculptures are an alligator carved from a 250-year old eucalyptus tree, a chameleon hewn from the wood of the mango tree, a carved peacock complete with towering plumage, an owl, and other wildlife. There are also more fanciful works, like a tree of life, a “green city” work that shows skyscrapers facing off against a verdant side of Bengaluru, a giant reclining Buddha face, and others.
When I visited, several of the placards giving details about the works had fallen down, presumably knocked over in the bustle of the flower show. There was no information about these sculptures’ stories, which I imagine would garner much appreciation for the garden authorities. The quality of the sculptures themselves left very much to be desired and I caught myself measuring the wisdom of the venture and the reasoning behind the choice of the artists. But I suppose I risk not seeing the wood for the trees. I left heartened that precious wood that carries the lives and stories of two centuries and more wasn’t discarded for a pittance and instead continues to engage with visitors to the gardens, thus continuing to imbibe new lives and new stories.

The sculptures carved from felled trees are on long term display near the Glass House in Lalbagh Botanical Gardens (Mavalli, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India).

Notes from London: In The Hindu Sunday Magazine

Published March 18, 2018 in The Hindu's Sunday Magazine section. Read it here or see below.


This time around during an essential-for-the-soul stopover in London town, I lived in Brixton a while. I say lived, even if it was for days four to five because Brixton is many lifetimes, simultaneously, side by side, in constant transit with and despite each other. In an instant it felt like I have lived here long, and am not just a curious cat passing through, lifting up and poking through the alleys and jumbled streets, writing notes and window-shopping souvenirs, strange Caribbean foods and sage sticks from the corner mystic store run by Sri Lankans. I lived with beloved friends in a strangely constructed block of box houses; the building a delightful case of Brutalist architecture, the sort that signifies distinct articulation of what it is/is not, practicality, uniformity even, coldness. It is the sort of architecture I currently greatly love passing before, stopping by, seeing photographs of, marvelling in its coldness. Though in the alternative life I shall lead, we will only ever build a cob house on the farm, I tell the husband and myself.

The building used to be “rough” I am told, “not a place you would come to if you didn’t live there or didn’t know well anyone who did.” The case now of course is of the neighbourhood being all gentrified and these blocks being among the cooler postcodes to live in. The breeze is getting colder and I find myself pulling my jacket closer already. I shall not be around for the full blow though, instead, revelling in the gorgeousness that autumn – “Autumn is the hardest season. The leaves are all falling, and they’re falling like they’re falling in love with the ground (poet Andrea Gibson) – my most favourite of seasons, brings. Autumn is lovely everywhere, and when I remember to look up from the fascinating street up above busy, beautiful Brixton, autumn is gorgeous here too.

There I was, that morning, waiting for a friend outside the Brixton Tube station when a tall man wearing frilly black panties, a barely-there length of cloth passing off as a skirt, bare chested except for perfectly round fake breasts tied across sauntered by. No one looked at him, except perhaps for the briefest second. That is why I love cities, even when I hate them. That is why I love London, even if people are rude and the streets are crowded and polluted. Cities are difficult places, feelings for them never remain the same for more than a day. Yet London has the largest bit of my heart. If I could have been the sorts, I could live in London for a few weeks a year, to hang around, walk everywhere, see art, sit in cafes, bask in the late summer sun, read, walk more and just be, one of those sorts. This light-headedness for London will remain a few days more, until I begin to notice why I live in dread of the shape and smell of all cities.

For now, I am at Brixton Market Row in a cafĂ©, chosen deliberately for how empty it is. I cannot place myself in the middle of an earnest Saturday evening crowd at the end of some eight hours of flaneusing. The chef makes me an off-the-menu veg pasta, with excessive butter and cheese. Just before, I have visited the artist studios of friends at Somerset House, then taken myself to Tate Modern, along the Queen’s Way Path, along the dirty Thames. I crossed the Millennium Bridge to St Paul’s Cathedral to pick up some walking guide books from the tourist centre, crossed back, walked to Borough Market and found it way too crowded, bought myself a slice of too sweet Victoria Sponge and then a sushi box to offset the palate, stopped by at the Barbican Centre because the anonymous graffiti artist Banksy had made two new works outside its halls and taken photos of everything, for that is what you do these days. Accounting thus for a full day of being out and about town, the carb heaven in that cheesy pasta was that day’s idea of just the perfect day in the city of my heart.