Memory 1- As I was growing up in a middle class Bengali Household, I was taught early that nothing in this world is more important than knowledge. And while we need to earn a livelihood, (not having a family heirloom), not once in our lives should we let go of the quest for knowledge. Being an Indian and of an Indo Aryan Brahminical Origin, I always believed “Ohm” to be the beginning of everything in this world; even knowledge, for in that word lies the source of all creation. But while the Upanishads were being written, the early muses of Indian art were definitely of the written word and not much is left of the images of the rich tradition of Indian desire for Knowledge. So as I grew up, I searched for a symbol, a symbol that would define for me the desire, the curiosity, the unquenchable thirst. And then one dayl I found it – School of Athens by Rafael – the greatest tribute to knowledge I have ever seen. If there was a temple of human triumph in knowledge, this painting should be the one welcoming its devotees.
Memory 2 - I have never officially had a list of things to do before I am thirty. But I knew, if I ever had one, standing under the Sistine Chapel and watch in awe at the Creation of Man would be on top of the list. I came across the painting in an extremely cheeky advertisement by Levis where God hands over a pair of Levis to Adam. When I went back and looked at the original on the internet, I found the symbol that was the inspiration for my idea of God. In the painting, Michelangelo shows the halo of God in a strange shape and if you look intently you will realize that it is in the shape of the Human Brain. The second is the fact that even while creating God never touched His human form. The miniscule gap between the fingers is as telling a symbolism as can ever be.
Memory 3 – Born in a Bengali Hindu family, schooled by Salesian Missionaries, the concept of the Mother Goddess is something I am very close to. I believe in the matronly feminine form of Divinity. Nothing else can explain the continuance of the Human Race even after all that we have brought on this earth. And thus apart from the image of the Goddess Durga looking down upon me from her pedestal, the one image I have always carried in my heart is the “Pieta” – Mother Mary holding the body of Jesus after it has been brought down from the cross. Pieta is loosely translated to Pity. For me it always meant compassion.
In April 2012, the week of Good Friday, I finally did all three. I cried seeing the School of Athens and I had to quickly pretend that something fell into my eyes, I voluntarily fell on my knees on seeing the Pieta in perhaps the holiest of shrines for the Catholic faith and I felt the genius of Michelangelo who created something that was ethereal and eternal.
And yet, the highlights of Italy were none of these. The Vatican Museum; impressive as it was; was full of tourists rushing from one hall to another and all you could feel was a crowd of humanity pushing against you, kids giggling, tourists rushing to go to the Sistine Chapel without spending a moment to look at the Frescos and the work of Roman Mosaic, religious men and women awed at being in the presence of the holiest of holies. There was not a moment of inner peace I felt in the Vatican except in front of the Pieta and that’s why Notre Dam remains my favourite Cathedral of all times.
And more importantly, the Vatican Museum was a testimony of the systematic plunder of Roman (often under the garb of being Pagan) art and architecture by successive generations. Perhaps this is the brutality of time. Romans destroyed Egyptian culture and post Cleopatra’s failed attempts to seduce the 3rd Roman post Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, the Romans had no more care for Egypt and her Gods. And a few centuries later, The Colloseum would be closed for it hurt Christian sentiments; rather it hurt the sentiments of the Emperor who embraced Christianity. The only remaining Pre Christian Roman grandeur can be seen in the Pathenon, itself converted into a Church like many other basilicas.
The real treasures of Rome however lie elsewhere if you are interested.
(to be continued)