At the Mysore Palace yesterday I decided to sit down and draw for a while. I didn’t realize that this would make me a sitting duck for schoolchildren, shy housewives, and roving bands of men to stop and have their picture taken shaking my hand. ‘What is your good name (or sweet name – interchangeable)?’ ‘Where are you coming from?’ and my favorite: ‘Are you the one who has done this drawing?’ while I’m obviously in the middle of it. Amusing but tiring, which is I suppose one of the best ways of describing traveling in India.
After I had gotten sunburned enough (even though I had been hiding beneath my dupatta) I went in to see the palace, accepting the omnipresent audio guide. This one was particularly droll (unintentionally, I imagine): it was full of sound effects. A description of the palace that had stood on the site until the end of the 19th century and had burned down was accompanied by sounds of fire; a telling of the legend of the goddess Durga slaying a buffalo demon would not have been complete without her sword whistling through the air and the liberated head hitting the ground.
The interior of the palace is breathtaking. Its style is described as Indo-Saracenic, which is a fancy way of saying ‘an Englishman’s fantasy of what an Indian palace should look like’. There are buildings like this all over India that combine Hindu, Mughal, and Victorian motifs into staggering monuments to wealth and power. Many of my architect friends would sneer condescendingly “pastiche”, but I see the beauty in it. I was especially blown away by the marriage pavilion — a triple-height atrium with a stained-glass roof held up by delicate cast-iron columns– and a private audience chamber with yet another stained-glass roof. Most of the doors are teak inlaid with ivory designs or clad in pure silver and the floors mosaic. Ceilings are carved teak or composed of hundreds of domes on columns. On the few walls that don’t hold painted murals gold tracery has been applied over brilliant paint colors.
This might be a good time to rant against the rigid ideology taught in architecture schools today. Up until the advent of modernism in the late 19th century, it had been acceptable throughout human history to borrow from the past; to make allusions to myth and allegory; to provide decoration. Modernist propaganda declaimed that a clean break from history must be made. Any tinge of nostalgia or ornament was suspect – a train of thought that is still espoused today. Post-modernism was supposed to pave the way for a return to multiplicity of viewpoints and styles, but I fear its legacy is only a large number of incredibly ugly buildings. So the world of intellectual architecture either turned back toward the International style or looked to impossibly convoluted, fragmented computer-generated blobs to save us.
I personally am suspicious of any strict manifesto. This may have something to do with my deep-seated disrespect for authority, but it seems to me that whenever you limit yourself to a genre you lose richness. Although I prefer to design and live in more minimalist environments, why can’t I appreciate baroque palaces? Does shaking my booty to Justin Timberlake’s latest mean I can’t listen to the Sisters of Mercy or indulge my fondness for Mahler? My own system of classification is very catholic, and is governed by one supreme criterion: is it good? There are plenty of badly-done pastiche edifices in the world, but just as many (if not more) shoddy, poorly-planned modernist failures. My old boss at R_____ had a horror of pitched roofs; he claimed that they were twee. That’s debatable, but what’s not in question is the fact that pitched roofs shed water in a very wet climate much better than flat ones and that on a site which would be mainly viewed from above, a membrane roof with HVAC equipment may not be the best choice. I thought that an organically shaped building might suit a curving hillside context, but the office style was easily described as ‘box’, and they weren’t having any. Ideology got in the way of good design.
Modern Indian architecture is a sad example of International style applied inappropriately. The buildings from the past forty years are bland, falling down, provide no cover, and with their flat roofs I can’t believe they could work well in the monsoon. The colonial houses, though not an indigenous architecture, were at least human in scale, shed water, cooled themselves naturally, and provided a place to sit in the shade.
I am not suggesting that we go back to blindly copying designs from the past. But I also am wary of summarily rejecting it. Ironically, vernacular architecture often seems to have found its own highly practical solutions without interference from architects.
At breakfast I had run into a young Australian couple traveling during a break in their masters programs. They were friendly, lively, and articulate, and we arranged to meet for dinner. Dinner turned into several vodka and lime sodas on a rooftop overlooking a busy square. It was the most comfortable I’ve been in India so far, which reminded me of the value of companionship. With the exception of a few hours here and there (and the week with the Martins, but I don’t count it as much) I’ve been on my own for a month now. For the most part it’s been fine, as I am more solitary by nature than most people imagine me to be; but if I were traveling in a country where people were less friendly and inquisitive I might be quite lonely by now. As it is, I think I will hold out well enough for the next few months.
This morning I caught the city bus up to Chamundi Hill, one of the ‘eight most sacred hills in South India’. It is a popular pilgrimage site, with a temple overlooking the Mysore plain. Unfortunately it is also full of what the guidebooks call ‘tenacious touts.’ I had not been inside a living temple before and didn’t know what to do, so when an older man took me by the elbow and gave me colored powder and marigolds to offer to the goddess, I acquiesced – knowing I would have to pay him later. He showed me around for about 15 minutes, then I gave him 200 rupees and went to leave. He demanded another 100, and I, knowing full well that I had already given him more than enough (and had nothing else in my wallet in any case), refused. He became unpleasant, but I walked away. It left a bad taste in my mouth.
The problem with being a westerner traveling around India is that there is no way to disguise yourself. You can wear Indian clothing and walk quickly and not respond to invitations, but you are inimically foreign and so the touts will always seek you out. Today I found it very fatiguing. But then again, on the bus ride down the hill, a young girl came over and fixed the zipper on the back of my dress that I had not noticed had come open. I reiterate that the vast majority of people I’ve interacted with (especially the women) have been friendly to the point of affection. It’s just a question of spending enough time away from tourist draws so you don’t become completely fed up.
I had meant to go on to Pondicherry tomorrow, but I find I don’t have the energy. I think I need to punctuate every stay in a city with a few days in the middle of nowhere. So I am headed instead tomorrow to Ooty, a hill station where it promises to be cooler, if not downright cold. I’m told that Ooty is developed, with its own set of touts, but that it’s easy to get out walking into the hills. The Australians went there this morning and we had said we might meet up in Kerala in a week. I hope they don’t think I’m stalking them.