Category Archives: Indian Culture

“Parts of Parts & Stitches”

Last night, my husband, a group of his friends and I went to see a production of “Parts of Parts & Stitches,” a magical realism play by Riti Sachdeva on the horrors of the Partition of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan.

A joyous, colorful occasion, a wedding day in the Punjab region, 1947, the patchwork of two families eager with anticipation for their pending unification. In PARTS OF PARTS & STITCHES, Yamuna and Jiwan prepare for their lives and future together in a small village of what is soon to become Pakistan. Soon after the couple celebrates their matrimony, the reality of the political and religious upheaval forced on the country by Britain’s abandonment, becomes apparent. The violence of man against man, erupts in a horrific massacre. With perseverance and a will to survive, Yamuna desperately attempts to stitch back the pieces of her life. 

I thought it was a very good play, and well-performed.  My companions were put off by the fact that the lead actress was not Indian and her attempt at the accent fell short.  I am not Indian, and it is harder for me to pick up on nuances like that.  The play was intense and really gut-wrenching at times.  The violence and trauma of Partition was very real for so many people.  I remember reading about it in City of Djinns by William Dalrymple and just being horrified.  Even the floor of the stage had a stitched line running across it, separating it clean across into two.  The play claimed that Partition was responsible for the slaughter of as many as 1 million people.  So hard to believe.  Could such a thing be possible? 

I spent much of the play thinking about my in-laws and what their family went through during Partition – one side being displaced from the Punjab, and the other displaced from what is now Bangladesh.  Even though they survived, what terrible pain and tragedy they endured.  Many of the play’s characters said, “We will leave for now to be safe, but we will come back when it is all over.”  But of course, they didn’t.  Couldn’t.  Can you imagine having to uproot everything and run for your lives overnight?

Riti Sachdeva’s use of vultures (as characters) struck me as perhaps the most interesting.  The vultures set the stage and serve as the backdrop for all of the bloody action.  They are ominous and hang about; you can’t be rid of them.

The playwright says, “I did extensive oral histories with relatives who are survivors of partition. I’ve read dozens of books and articles, watched movies, listened to music. I’ve had a number of conversations and debates over the last twenty years with all kinds of people about partition and its impact. I listen to the stories my papa tells me when we’re just kicking back, no tape recorder. […] [The play] will resonate because we are in the millions—the children and grandchildren of the people who did or did not survive the partition and we are commemorating its 65th anniversary this year. The displacement is part of our legacy along with the work to resist the dividing rhetoric and policies. I can’t tell you the number of people I meet whose elders were refugees on both sides of the border. It’ll resonate because when we take an honest, quiet, guiltless look around at who are our friends, communities, lovers, neighbors, co-workers, collaborators, prisoners, employers, employees—what we see is an apartheid of our very own, right here and now.”

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Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India, 1100-1900

Yesterday I visited my favorite NYC haunt, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with two friends to catch a new exhibition that is getting rave reviews: Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India, 1100-1900.

We began our adventure at Mughlai, an Indian restaurant on the Upper West Side.  I ordered a vegetarian thali, which gives you a little bit of everything, while my friends ordered a non-veg thali and a bhindi masala.  Good food, though the decor was not exactly authentic (some Indian art on the walls, but combined with hanging Christmas lights and a menora on the bar).

We then walked across Central Park to the Met, where we headed straight for the exhibition (after making a quick stop at Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine).  It was simply breathtaking.

One of the trademarks of this exhibition is that art historians have finally been able to identify the artists who have created the masterpieces.  According to the NY Times review, “Their motive has been to dispel the long-held view, especially in the West, that these often small, transcendent works were made by unlauded artisans toiling away in monasteries and imperial workshops.”

Nearly 200 works in six galleries explore the elaborate style wars between the raw vigor and flat color blocks of the indigenous Rajput (Hindu) court manner and the finely calibrated naturalism and delicate patterns imported by the conquering Mughals of Central Asia. Repeatedly fusing, breaking apart and fusing again, these styles percolated throughout northern and central India as the Mughals expanded their dominance over Rajput courts, especially in the late 16th and 17th centuries.

While most exhibitions of Indian paintings include only a few examples whose creators are known by name, this one concentrates almost exclusively on works that are known or thought to be by some 40 individuals. […]

We encounter families of artists, some of whom worked for successive generations of emperors, most notably the brilliantly cosmopolitan Akbar the Great, who took over the first Mughal court at Delhi in 1556, and his son Jahangir and grandson Shah Jahan, all passionate patrons of painting. Toward the end of the show, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the Mughal courts were in disarray, we see the emergence of Rajput family workshops that catered to multiple patrons, both Indian and European.

If you are in New York at any time before January 8, you must go see it.

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Indian Fiction Rising

The NY Times published an article over the summer on the global interest in Indian literature, using Amitav Ghosh’s success with novels like “Sea of Poppies” as an example.  It got me thinking about the Indian books on my to-read list (see below) and how I need to get to them.  Some of my favorites from the past are “A Fine Balance,” “The God of Small Things,” and “The White Tiger.”  Unfortunately, I made it through only half of “Midnight’s Children” by Salman Rushdie (no small feat) and completely lost interest. (As an avid bookworm and former literature major, I’m disappointed with myself for not catching on to the Rushdie fever.)

To Read List

Even before I married into an Indian family and traveled to India, I found works of Indian fiction to be unevenly focused on negative things. For example, I couldn’t find an Indian novel that didn’t highlight inequality between classes and/or sexes, extreme poverty, extreme corruption, etc. Even Indian films that make it big in the west (e.g. Slumdog Millionaire) only show India through this lens.

I remember book shopping with my in-laws and raising this issue to them when my father-in-law asked me what I thought of “The White Tiger.”  My mother-in-law wholeheartedly agreed with my assessment, though my father-in-law wasn’t so sure.  Even my husband’s friends have weighed in, saying that things like bribes are a real part of the Indian experience and to deny them is to deny that experience.  I believe there is right on both sides.

I can’t write a post about books on India without mentioning all of the exciting non-fiction I’m looking forward to reading.  My father-in-law just gave me two new William Dalrymple titles: “The Last Mughal” and “White Mughals.”  He previously recommended “City of Djinns,” which I devoured and absolutely loved before my first trip to Delhi.  I also have “India: A History” by John Keay, though it’s so big that I don’t anticipate getting through it any time soon.

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