The realm of fantasy has a lot of mirrors that contain wonderful worlds on the other side. These worlds are wonderful because in the blank of mirrors, beyond those reflections, only imagination exists; they remain wonderful because the ‘other side’ of mirrors can’t be accessed. Perhaps it because of our familiarity with our own side, which abates our amusement with it, that we always fantasise about these mirror worlds that look the same and yet are ‘the other’.
Reality confirms that such mirrors, containing wonderful worlds, only exist in the realm of fantasy. For a mirror is essentially blank…the blank can’t contain… the blank doesn’t have anything of its own because it is, well, blank. It just reflects everything in its plain exactness. And outside the realm of fantasy, the virtue of mirrors lies not in containing fantastical worlds, but reflecting our own in its exactness and precision.
Of all the well-known painted mirrors, one of the most important in fine arts is a round convex mirror in the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, which owes its immense fame to its precision of detail in reflection.
The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait by Jan Van Eyck is a full size portrait of a newlywed couple, holding hands, standing in a room that has a huge round convex mirror on the rear wall. The mirror lies at the heart of this painting despite being in the background; the quality of a convex mirror to converge the size of reflected image while maintaining clear details is what Jan Van Eyck utilises to portray the opposite side of the room. The scene on the opposite side shows two figures just entering the room. The cold expression on the couple’s faces, otherwise unfit for a wedding portrait, can now be explained by the reflected scene as dismay over interruption by visitors. Knowledge of the scene on the opposite side changes our perception of scene on this side.
Turns out, a mirror need not contain an alternate world on the other side to inspire imagination. This mirror and the way Van Eyck used it has inspired a multitude of artists from all times, and had a major influence on artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood four centuries later. This was a group of artists who advocated realism in its extreme detail and precision, and were greatly intrigued by the mirror in the Arnolfini portrait. Mirrors are commonly featured in Pre-Raphaelite paintings, a lot of them painted in the likeness of that of the Arnolfini Portrait. Though mirrors have always been a valued tool in realist art, for the Pre-Raphaelites, mirrors were important not just for their form, but also the subject, meaning and symbolism of what they painted.
In Il Dolce Far Niente by William Holman Hunt, the eyes of the lady fixedly gaze at the spectator, or the artists for whom she might be modelling. As used in the Arnolfini portrait to show the opposite side, such mirrors have been used by many artists to create double portraits in their paintings—portraying themselves in the very act of painting that painting. A closer look of the mirror on the rear wall in ‘Il Dolce Far Niente’, however, shows no one on the opposite side. Instead of gazing at a spectator, or modelling for the artist painting her, she is found to be just staring into the fireplace. The reflection in the mirror is what, in fact, gives meaning to the painting and makes good its title “the sweet pleasure of doing nothing”.
In another painting by the same artist, ‘The Awakening Conscience’, a couple are captured in the middle of what seems like a light romantic moment. Various objects in their surroundings, along with the lack of a ring on girl’s left hand, make it clear that she lives in an unhappy state of a mistress. Yet the girl looks hopeful and dreamy. A reflection in the mirror behind her, of a green and sunny world on the outside, reveals what she actually fancies—freedom away from this luxurious entrapment, not idle romance that provides for her vain pleasures.
Hunt was one of the founding artists of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. These paintings are prime examples of how the Pre-Raphaelite concept of realism was much more extensive than its visual aspect. Here, realism does not mean photo-realistic rendering of what fits in the frame. Their paintings certainly have much more than what can fit in a frame and this realism is rather concerned with presenting the picture in its entirety and exactness—what mirrors are used for.
These mirrors, more than reflecting what we can’t view otherwise, deflect our vision from what is right in front of us, and change our perspective about what we might see so plainly and take for granted. They remind us that there need not be worlds on the other side of mirrors, the world on this side is fascinating enough if looked at from new perspectives; and while fantasising about the inaccessible ‘other side’, we often miss out on reality of our own side.
Written by Eshna Gupta
Painting by Jan Van Eyck
Image Edited by Chetanya Godara
I have always been a worrier, of sorts. I pride myself on being someone who organizes all of her time and work in a manner such that I don’t succumb to the, all too, familiar endless pit of worrying. Except that it didn’t work too efficiently during and after tenth grade. When you’re just a little tenth-grader, eleventh-grade seems like a prolonged bus ride during the span of which, you just happen to be motion-sick. Twelfth-grade is this laborious and knee-wrecking trek you have to take; once you step off the bus – tired and nauseous. And College? College is scaling a mountain after you have trekked all the way and only to realize that the bus has left – without you.
I arrived in Delhi in July 2017 – fresh out of school, with a giant suitcase (the handle of which fell off the very next day) and a nervous yet excited smile – the feeling of apprehension lurked not-so-subtly about my every step. I had always talked about (i.e. shamelessly preached about, in my writing) stepping out of one’s comfort zone and here I was, literally fifteen hundred kilometers away from my safe haven. I was on a three-year adventure, with little mini-adventures and encounters around every corner of the way.
With little over four months into college and a new city, I had checked off a lot of new firsts on my list: my first bank account and first ATM withdrawal, first time on the metro alone, first time washing my own clothes, amongst other things. Not all of these firsts were restricted to daily activities though; first time watching a live play at the National School of Drama, first time witnessing the grandeur of Durga Puja out on the streets, first time bargaining fiercely at Sarojini market, first time feeling independent sans any terms and conditions. I become a little more confident every day and the feeling felt like no other. For the first time, I felt like a newbie adult.
All of what I have described is just the paraphernalia that tags along with the whole “College Experience.” In truth, it is actually the full-fledged honours classes, internal assessments and end-semester exams that really seem to crowd my small plate made of Poor Time Management. When you’re a student of the CBSE board, every task in college just becomes twice as hard: getting used to having a 250 word limit for a ten marker question doesn’t fare well academically after twelfth-grade. Moreover, exam time implies greater vulnerability to stress. In the past few years, my parents’ physical presence has manifested itself in the form of moral support. Now, it has been reduced to good vibrations over the phone.
For me, independence was never about escaping my family – nor was it about having more freedom or being able to do things I couldn’t do otherwise – the concept of independence was, and will always be more along the lines of learning how to do things on my own; making my own decisions, discerning between what’s right and wrong without having someone tell me. It’s about setting things right after having made a mistake.
One major upside of me embracing my independence (read: not having my family around) is that I learned how to parent myself – I took care of myself and tried not to let anything harm me, be it physical or psychological; and if it did, I read manuals on how to get past it without a crutch. I constantly reminded myself to drink enough water because, all I saw when I looked at my empty Tupperware bottle was my mother asking , “Beta, how much water did you drink today?” Or when I had already eaten my two-roti meal and I was still craving rice, I saw my father’s bobble-head in the air exclaiming , “Beta your plate is empty! Have some rice.” I learned how to balance my expenses, how to grocery shop, how to use the GPS better, how to fight peer pressure by myself as opposed to hoping that my mother’s “no” would serve as an excuse to dodge forceful invitations.
I’m halfway through my first year of college, and aside from the few bruises and scrapes I’ve earned on the climb up this mountain, it’s been quite alright. But then again, I’m only in my first year. Is it too much to ask, that you check up on me in a couple of months?
Written by Sukriti Lakhtakia
Feature Image by Joy Malsawhmlui
Just a couple of weeks ago, I had been a part of an informal, yet essential initiation ceremony. Standing outside the back gate of LSR, I joined the gaggle of first years standing awkwardly in front of the thele-wala bhaiyya. We had been spoilt for choice – pasta in two different sauces, chilli chicken, kathi rolls, chilli potatoes, noodles, manchurian. But, the initiation demanded that we make one choice, a choice as old as time itself. ‘Bhaiyya, one plate momos,’ said the girl standing in front of me. And like sheep, we all followed her lead. ‘I don’t want to have it,’ I told my friend mutinously. Being my usual fastidious self, all I could think of was, whether momos could cause typhoid (one attack of the disease had made me averse to all food being sold on streets). My friend (she is my Pallas Athena, I swear) answered me with a simple question – ‘Are you not human?’
After that I made my peace with the fact that I was eating momos, come rain or hail. Finally, our turn came and we were handed that small cardboard and foil plate. And then we saw them- beautifully wrapped, pristine white and stuffed with goodness, sitting atop fiery red sauce. Not one word more was said, the hypnotic pull of the momos caused our hands to simply reach out for them and stuff them in our faces. There was silence. The kind of silence that follows the magic that food has the power to create. I broke it, my fingers still reaching out for the sauce, ‘Does he stuff these with cocaine or something?’ My wise friend looked at me, annoyed – ‘This is art, genius, not drugs.’
And that, my dear readers, made me think (I am the philosophical, ponderous type) – what really are these momos? A symbol, perhaps, of the Tibetan refugees, who have made Delhi their home, or of India’s North East. But what did the eternal momo mean to Delhi? It hit me, when I was having yet another plate of delicious momos – this time from Brown Sugar, no less. The momo symbolises the quintessential Delhiite – like the beautifully pleated, smooth cover, the Delhiite is immaculate when observed from a distance. But when you get a little closer, you are treated with a remarkably tangy and larger than life character, just like the momo filling. One bite into that soft dough cover and your taste buds are assaulted with a plethora of flavours, difficult to comprehend fully, at times. The momo did not emerge in Delhi, just like most Delhi peeps. But like the people of Delhi, it too now calls Delhi home. And of course, the red chutney – or as I like to call it ‘the Wrath of Achilles’ – is present within every single Delhiite. I am pretty sure dear reader, that this hasn’t escaped your notice. That killer glare and very loud ‘Excuse me?!’ you are treated with when you try to snatch away the last pair of Rs. 100 ripped denims in Sarojini, or the fierce bargaining done by your Delhi friend with the autowallah, are all manifestations of that red chutney. All these features of the momo are actually those aspects of Delhi that make it interesting. The glitzy facade, the wholesome interior and bits of plain old wrath combine to produce a frighteningly beguiling vortex that lures in women and men, quite like the ring of Sauron.
My momo mania has transferred onto my whole family now, and come weekends, plates of these beauties adorn our dining table. Steamed options, boiled ones, wonton soup, rice paper dumplings, wontons with egg wrappers and so on are now all tried and tested in my household. But, it is the momo, the true, thela-wala momo that keeps me going. As college proceeds and all of us go from being confused freshers to being simply confused, we can find time only for one thing – running to the outside thela, or any such shady establishment, for a plate of momos, the source of a teensy bit of joy in our swamped lives. Quite like Delhi, it would seem. Her traffic choked lanes make us want to choke the city itself, but a day away from her and we start missing the glib salespeople of Sarojini and Janpath.
So, if you want to do some deep soul searching, then I suggest go grab a plate of momos.
Written by Visakha Chowdhury
Feature Image by Devika
PEOPLE AND MOTION
The commencement of a journey is something that each person has their own interpretation of; for some it’s the moment they start feeling the gentle goodbyes of their home, while for others it starts the moment they reach the destination, and for others the distance between two places and how it’s traversed is what counts.
After 10 hours of being in the train, the excitement of the trip gets replaced by the need to be on a surface which doesn’t give a lurch every now and then. Also, the need for a hygienic and functional washroom tips the scales of your mood on the duller side. But on the brighter side, the mornings spent in the trains make for the best sunrises as you see the motions of the world come alive in tandem with the motion of the train itself.
PEOPLE IN PLACES
Going to a hill station and not visiting its cafes seems almost blasphemous. ‘The Divine Hima’, located in the interior of one of the winding streets of Dharamshala is worth all efforts. It gives you an aesthetic overdose with its warm and inviting interiors decorated with the photos of nature in all its beauty enclosed by wooden walls, ceilings and floorings. The café, along with cookies, cakes and shakes also offers you a heavy dose of melancholy as you go deeper inside to discover a mantelpiece with a fireplace, polaroid shots taken of wilderness and a modest reading space upstairs. All in all, it’s a beautiful place for a soulful retreat.
One of the much-hyped places to visit in Mcleodganj is the “Illiterati Café”. It has its own locational advantages, situated within the long winding chain of hills with clouds tumbling down like waves from the foggy sky. Acclaimed for its theme of a book café, it serves delicious bakery goods while displaying a modest collection of books. The place has a homely aura which accentuates the effect hills have on a person; calmness, serenity and scattered voices of a million inhabitants come together in an overpowering silence that takes over your senses.
Continuing with the importance of places which exist in their quiet solitude, one can’t help but contemplate the idea of escape. It revolves around one’s need to find respite when the present circumstances become too overwhelming to find a way out of. One thinks of escape when the edge of the abyss of sleep seems out of reach, when one’s sense of balance fails to adapt to the situation and when one simply becomes sick of monotony. This need makes such places of retreat even more attractive, places that look far removed from the ones which make up your day to day life and bring out the hidden talent of an artist, writer or poet from within. The idea of escape pushes you towards wanderlust and that makes the prospect of existence all the more interesting.
It’s almost as if the silence pushes you closer to your own self and allows you the luxury of studying your own reactions and movements, and take on several things to evolve as a person, as your own person. And that is perhaps why the notion of travelling solo is so popular. Sometimes, we forget to grow up while consistently surrendering to the world’s demands of behaving like an adult and trying to wrap it all in layers of lies till the cracks start showing. One often needs to move out from their usual habitats to repair those cracks into a demeanor that is more real.
PEOPLE AND NATURE
This picture shows a particular point to the hike where Maggi costed slightly higher than it usually does. Nevertheless, the view of the setting sun and the hills coming alive with the lights of the inhabitants’ houses illuminating the hill like fireflies was worth the toil. On another level this picture highlights the concept of perspectives as well; while some choose to pleasure their naked eyes upon the sprawling beauty, others prefer to capture it through lenses, trying to make it everlasting in their archives, and the others choose to make memories of companionship.
#8 (sketch by- Misha Panduval)
Within people exist so many ways of living and seeing, and all of them end up finding their own place to thrive beneath the same sky and on the same earth. This picture further adds to this description of perspective because there also exist some people who look at beauty with the intention of inspiration. Capturing the wild, uncontained and unending beauty of nature in words and pencil strokes comes with the perils of putting words and labels to your emotions, both of which are simultaneously a creative mind’s challenge as well as motivation.
This picture draws a parallel between the downward descent of people as well as the sun with its blaze of fading light behind them. Everyone fears the night and only few are brave enough to venture into its unbeknownst dwellings. But these long meandering paths lined with rocks and the wilderness of greenery witness the night, its secrets and all that it refuses to part to the light of the day.
Goodbyes are a tricky concept while returning from a vacation or a trip; you aren’t extremely familiar to the place, yet you have had one of the best times of your life there and you are still not ready to get over it. It is the idea of relaxing and removing oneself from the pressing worries that causes makes farewells look so unappealing. So you take back all that you can, from stray flowers to press between fancy diaries, postcards to be kept beneath books, memories from the road trip where the sky changed from purple to pink to orange to the fulfilling friendship formed over the mutual awe expressed over Jasmines growing out of shady groves.
One tries to take back as much of the place as possible, trying to map the distances of heart, mind and roads through pictures, postcards and strokes of a pen, only for the meaning of it all to fade away with time, for such is the tragedy of memories.
Written and Photographed by Ananya Vasishtha
Feature Image by Ananya Vasishtha
“On Wednesdays, we wear pink.”
The Wednesdays are not pink anymore
like your presence,
like your absence.
The petals of the Alliums you gave me were pink
with a stiff stem
hanging like a tongue.
The silky sheets on our bed were pink
dented and scattered
that the street lamps outside would illuminate
in the darkness of the night
like our breaths mingled in the frosty air.
The pencils kept on the table were pink
stacked together to write notes and letters
full of words rejected and thrown
into a dusty bin
and hugged and stored in a small box
at the back of my bookshelf.
The Cali CD you loved was pink
and it played in the background
with you whispering along
C’est quand le bonheur
I didn’t understand it then and now
When will I finally be happy?
The tissues at the restaurant were pink
as we ordered through
audible sighs and hissed breaths
hot, hot anger
flowing through our veins, as it
spilled over and died
unlike the ticking clock which exploded in the back.
The cherry blossoms in our local park were pink
as they fell on the bench
and then the ground
and were picked up by me for my niece
and were trampled upon by you.
The last piece of cheesecake with
too much strawberry syrup on it was pink
which you ate
leaving the crumbs on the plate
in the overflowing sink
for me to wash away.
The leash of our small dog is pink,
filled with white polka dots
who will sit in the tired sunlight
at your feet
like the world you believe you live in.
The post-it on which you wrote
“Need toothpaste, butter and socks”
for me was pink
that will stare at me
until the cheap glue dries off the wall.
The laughter between us was pink,
soft, ugly, true
and loud, loud and loud
just like our anger, just like our tears.
And the memories of you are pink,
and just out-of-reach
like your old and warm t-shirt
kept at the top of my closet
wrinkled at the sides
in the centre.
The skies were pink too
on that Wednesday
Tinged with pink
Stained with pink
Consumed by pink
As you screamed me, me, me all the way down.
Written by Pragati Sharma
Image by Sheena Kasana
I was a person who had only ever seen bits and pieces of “Mean Girls” on TV, and the parts I had seen gave me the impression that it was an overrated movie that people enjoyed merely for its brash, offensive one-liners and its clichéd portrayal of high-school hierarchy. So when I voted for it as the theme for this month’s issue of Jabberwock— I was prepared to roast it.
I decided to watch the entire movie once first to do justice to the article. By the time it was finished, I was very, very annoyed.
I was annoyed because I could no longer write a scathing review about it.
Yes, the movie can be watched on a superficial level, in which case all one takes away are the iconic one-liners and the Disney-esque life lesson at the end. Yes, it has its flaws since some characters are excessively caricatured, some of the acting is sub-par and some of the comedic one-liners are completely unnecessary (although extremely quotable, standalone lines, such as the woman who wanted to bake a cake of happiness).
But as a whole, the script of the movie shows a brilliantly technical circularity. The best example is the parallel between Cady and Regina, how they both become the same type of shallow and self-centred people, and how Regina goes from being the predator to the prey.
Another aspect that sets “Mean Girls” apart is its characterisation. There are many stereotyped, stock characters, but some manage to stay with the viewer. While Cady has her dark moments, overall she is an idealized and innocent character. However, Regina and Gretchen, two of the original “mean girls,” are more complex. Of course, we dislike them for their cruelty and narcissism, but their dark and petty traits are something all of us can somewhat relate to – they have human flaws. And despite these flaws, we cannot help but root for them at times. Regina is mean, no doubt, but we cannot help but feel for her when Cady exploits her body insecurities with the Kalteen bar scam. We also pity Gretchen and her strong need for approval from Regina, and validation from others.
Thus “Mean Girls” is a film which has parts that you can laugh at because it seems so exaggerated and far from reality, and parts that are almost unsettlingly realistic and almost guilt-provoking, reminding us of the ease with which we judge and slander the people around us. It is also realistic because it does not show a great deal of change in the existing hierarchy of the high school, or an ideal reform of everyone’s character. There is just a rearrangement of the “mean girls” into new, less damaging social roles and a greater understanding of existing problems – which is how change, actually begins.
Written by Madhuboni Bhattacharya
Image by Aanchal Juneja
The lunch table buried itself
Under the cover
Of a dozen books.
It hid itself
Within the soft strands
That fell comfortingly,
Over thick lashes
And dark-rimmed glasses.
It brooded over
Its half-done homework.
In soft murmurs
About the world
And how it worked
In muted words
With the soft sallow bloom
Of pale yellow skin
It saw the world
Through half-open eyes.
The lunch table simpered
With frothy giggles,
Under the rose-tinted hue
Of fake laughter
And expensive perfume.
It flaunted itself
Through crisp, blonde curls
Animate, inquisitive eyes.
It conversed over
Its latest exploit.
It babbled with urgency
About the mall,
And about the people.
In staged whispers
About the life
It shone with
The bronzed glory
Of a summer spent
It saw the world
The lunch table
It was a constraint,
A self-imposed restriction
That did not know
You were an anomaly.
Written by Avani Solanki
Image by Joy Malsawmhlui
“Fugly slut” was a phrase I picked up while watching the film Mean Girls on television with my sister. She was about twelve and I, nine. By default, books and television would never get censored in our household. It was not until much later that I really understood what it meant; but it wasn’t just a film to me even back then for playground politics has never been just a microcosm. It is what enables the performance of power and socialization into the roles that power dynamics demand from us at a very young age.
Being eight years old is one of the most difficult things I’ve done in my life. My family moved back to the city we had earlier lived in, which meant changing schools in the middle of the academic year. I spent a lot of hours learning how to spell because I was terrible at it, trying to live with the constant discord at home and waiting outside my paediatric nephrologist’s office. It was a painful and endless battle with my body and mind. I had no friends at school or otherwise and wasn’t able to do well academically either. The presence of mean girls wasn’t a welcome addition to this.
Playground politics at the “sexually latent” stage of childhood manifests itself in physical and superficial appearances, because abstract thinking isn’t supposed to have completely developed in a child’s cognition by this stage of development. When I look back, that’s exactly how it seems. The two girls in my class that everybody seemed to adore and worship, even the teacher, seemed to meet some arbitrary standard of attractiveness that pervades the world of childhood too.
Each day, I would struggle with how different I was, in the way I looked, in my quietness, in my academic and athletic incompetence. “You can’t sit with us” isn’t just a dialogue in a film to me; it has been an everyday reality for a significant part of my childhood. I remember not wanting to be associated with, being bullied and socially ostracized. I remember falling asleep each night wishing I would wake up somewhere else and not having to go back to school. I never felt like I could get any real help or talk to my parents about it and so I learnt to keep mum about way too much from quite early on. Nobody will really help us, my mother’s voice still echoes in my head from the time she used to say it when I was little.
I wanted to be like my sister. Look like her, talk like her, befriend her friends. The sheer impossibility of this consumed me with jealousy and immense rage at myself. Little did I know she was battling with the manifestation of the mean girls phenomenon within her own age group, it was only as we grew older that I learnt how to grapple with the magnitude of its presence. Unfortunately, I also happened to be one of the youngest children in the apartment where we lived, so anybody hardly ever took me seriously and nobody could really protect me. I was always a lemon/tamarind/tangerine; the rules of the game relaxed for me because I couldn’t run fast enough by virtue of being five years old. Once, an older girl who we played with didn’t slow down while she held my hand and ran with me, my feet could not keep up and I ended up skinning my knee on concrete. I remember crying and asking her to slow down; the bruise is still a shadow on my left knee; over the years, it has healed from looking like a chocolate chip cookie to a butterfly to just a faint scar of a memory. Somebody had to carry me home that day; “Ayyo, what happened?” said our neighbour’s sympathetic voice, as she leaned over her balcony ledge lined with potted cacti.
Mostly, I was an indoors-y child who hid under the large dining table with my dolls and our private tea party. Occasionally I would peep from the windows at children skating outside on Saturday mornings, only to retreat back to my hiding place. I wore pink not just on Wednesdays, but almost all the time, I gravitated towards this colour almost instinctively but it didn’t allow me any access or an entry point into an exclusive clique of girls. My sister seemed to be doing much better by having tastes completely opposite to mine. I talked so little, most people assumed I knew just as much and had little to contribute to any conversation. ”Your daughter is too quiet, she needs to talk” was a phrase my mother grew quite familiar with as everybody who ever taught me reinforced this idea.
It was only once I was a teenager that I started talking, really talking about how I feel and what I think. It took me about fourteen years of my life to feel brave enough to do that as I’d silently fought my battles until I learnt I could make friends.
A friendship I developed as an adult has grown rife with animosity but in a moment of tenderness, she calls out to me and in memory of better times, we sit together in a circle in the hostel’s inner quad, under the canopy of fairy lights at midnight. It’s fesitive, warm, fuzzy and bittersweet. There’s mellow and sentimental music drifting along with the smoke from sugary coffee in paper cups as multiple conversations encircle me. It isn’t really a circle, that’s impossible and it’s real that smaller sets of people are talking even in this arrangement. A couple of people beside me talk about how nobody really stays, how nobody can really ever stay. On the other side of the circle, there’s talk of a movie that makes you feel through and through. This moment could possibly be a scene from a film like that, I think.
Some of these people sitting along with me were the mean girls who would have bullied me in school. I often wonder if those girls ever stop and realise, if they even had a sense of the magnitude of damage they were doing or if they have grown to realise it at all. Probably not. I thought I had transcended that, that I had made peace and learned how to befriend people despite their meanness but it’s still very personal and difficult for me. It brings back a flood of unpleasant memories and I try to see these people sitting here just as people. Make allowances for all of us, even myself. Think of who messed up so bad that we feel the need to do this, in turn.
I’m no Cady Heron, and thankfully, “fugly slut” never became a part of the vocabulary I used to describe someone. I’m still learning how to live with the anxiety I learned to internalize at home and school and on some days, it gets really difficult but at least, I didn’t turn into a Plastic.
Being eight will probably be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but even then, I knew I wouldn’t always be that small and helpless. That year, I discovered I could write poems when we lost our dog to an accident one morning; the going got tough and I had nobody to confide in. The year after, I picked up reading and books couldn’t always be replacements for friends I didn’t have but it made feel less alone and powerless, at least. It taught me how to be less and less apologetic for being me and being incapable of being mean.
Written by Priya Tripathy
Image by Radhika Aneja
Art does not exist for the mere purpose of decorating shelf-tops and wall-fronts of palaces, neither does it exist for sitting ideally behind glass cases, hunting for the highest bidders. Coloured canvases have stories to tell that escape the yellow pages of historian’s journals—social histories, personal anecdotes, political upheavals—that could have been lost otherwise.
A painting might sit there, right above your head, without ever being looked at, unless it has something about it that has the power to trouble you and throw you out of your chair into a trail of questions leading up to those stories that escape the yellow pages of a historian’s journal. Even if you can’t dig up any social histories and personal anecdotes, it might just become your muse!
In that respect, Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring must have thrown a lot of people out of their chairs. For there is no end to the questions she raises, and there are no answers are to be found.
The Girl is recognizably European. She has a loose garment over her bust. As per today’s fashion, it might qualify as a camel-jacket thrown over a white pull-over, but people have trouble guessing what it might signify for a 17th-century Dutch costume. The turban she wears is often identified as oriental, and is certainly odd for a European face. The earring itself is abnormally large and too finely polished for a pearl. Who is she? What is she wearing? Is that really a pearl earring? Is she wearing only one? Is it even her own?
Vermeer probably wasn’t convinced that these questions were troubling enough to throw you out of your chair, so he didn’t stop there. The girl looks back with her head turned as if having suddenly remembered something she had to do but did not do. Her lips are parted as if she was going to say something, but decided otherwise. The strong, expectant, unexplained gaze is hard to resist. What is it that had slipped her mind? What is it she wanted to say? Why does she gaze so?
Another question that must come to your mind is whether Vermeer intended to throw you out of your chair with this painting…for there isn’t just one reason why an artist might create something. Wondering about the artist’s intention is inevitable once you become aware of the effect it actually has on you. And it was one such trail of thought that left me wondering what effect the Girl had on me.
What she is wearing is far from familiar—more so for the times that I live in than any other. Her attire is very unrecognizable, and so is she. I say this for the only tag of recognition I can give her is that of a stranger; the attire that she has been portrayed with would make me believe that it was so for the artist, as it is for me.
Yet, there is something about her face that does not let her be a stranger—it haunts! The soft strokes of her face make it hazy, as if it were slowly fading away. At the same time, it is highlighted by the colour and shadow scheme which focuses the visitor’s gaze on it, making it all the more captivating. It all leads me to believe that she must have been either a stranger, someone refusing to be effaced from memory even when there remains no reason to remember them. Or a loved one, long gone and kept alive in memory, whom the passing days do efface much against our will. For she exists in this rather extraordinary amalgam of the strange and the familiar, the forgotten and the oft- evoked. I believe she personifies memory. Retained and renewed as memories are—through souvenirs — it is important that she is The Girl with the Pearl Earring, something which becomes indispensible to her very being.
Witness, memorise, record, send posterity on a quest and make it witness too—things both historians and artists do. Yet the whys behind the creation of art and whats of the artists’ intentions are always fascinating because all is never revealed, and what is revealed is never conclusive. This fascination is what throws people out of their chairs into a trail of questions that lead to discovery and creative expeditions. And as you might observe in this column throughout, this is what has thrown me out of my chair too, into a space where there are no constraints to my imagination.
It must have been such whys and whats of this painting as well, for they are innumerable and interminable, that would have led to the origin of the varied literature that surrounds it. The artist’s life history is lost to us. The painting itself remained undiscovered for more than two centuries after his death. This girl’s story is one of those which escaped the yellow pages of a historian’s journal, but the literature it went on to inspire ranges from Tracy Chevalier’s fiction, its movie adaptation, and play performances to scholarship that includes clinical studies as well as Edward Snow’s rather emotional account of his encounter with the stare. The painting, despite a lost history, did not get lost and managed to trouble us enough to bring forward a story—a story about the lack of a story.
Some stories will always get lost beneath unwritten pages of histories, simply because we don’t know them yet. But if you look around, there’s always one odd girl, one odd earring and one odd stare, looking back and asking, “Do you wonder why I exist?”
Written by Eshna Gupta
Painting by Johannes Vermeer
Image Edited by Chetanya Godara