The twilight of the Ming Dynasty in Southern China, with its elegant courtesans, poets and playwrights, pageants, drinking bouts and boat rides, bedazzled the generation which witnessed its fall in 1644. It inspired a literary legacy which has fascinated readers ever since. The Ming twilight in “Southland” is immortalized in Kong Shang-Ren’s (d. 1719) classic opera “The Peach Blossom Fan”. Kong interviewed many protagonists of the late Ming, including Yu Hai (d. 1693), whose memoirs are translated here by Harvard’s Wai-Yee Lee.
Dressed like Rajput princesses in bangles, rhinestones and brocade tightly fitted over their svelte bodies, the young women created a stir when they entered the elevator of our nondescript apartment block in Singapore. Only later did I learn that these were bar dancers, dispatched by their needy families in rural Bihar to earn 200 hundred dollars a week in the clubs on Circular Road. 100 years earlier these women might have aspired to become elite entertainers, tawaifs, for the aristocrats of Benares or Lucknow. Saba Dewan’s magistral work explains the decline and fall of this storied tradition.
It’s hard to say with certainty how hyper-realism found its way into Indian painting. The sharp eye and curiosity of the first Mughal emperor, Babur, is said to have inspired painters to record nature with microscopic exactitude.
In his 1978 work Orientalism, Edward Said accused Western artists and intellectuals of instrumentalising their perception of the Islamic world to support the narrative of Western dominance and colonialism. The British Museum’s show of Orientalist painting from the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, allows us to evaluate the truth of Said’s statement.
“All the world’s a stage”, said Shakespeare, “ and all the men and women merely players.” His near-contemporary, Chinese dramatist Li Yu goes one step further and says that even in love, or perhaps especially in love, we can only play out our roles.
The diva is a nearly universal phenomenon. When Tosca sings in Giacomo Puccini’s opera of devoting her life to art and love, she speaks not just for herself but for a tradition of divas connecting Rome’s Teatro Argentina to Shiraz’s mystical soirées, to the pleasure pavilions of Delhi, to the entertainment quarter of Yangzhou.
Connoisseurship is an elusive concept. What makes wealthy and refined collectors tick? Where does their obsession for the object come from? The Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon celebrates the 150th birthday of founder Calouste Gulbenkian’s birth with a show “A Gosta pela Arte Islâmica” that tries to answer those questions.