The Binary: City and Nature

Posted by Prasad Krishna at Sep 20, 2010 10:40 AM |
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A continuation of the last post wherein I am looking at various other representation of the city in both classical and popular medium, today I am writing my views on the analysis of certain Miniature paintings.

You might think why do I not come to the point of looking at the Internet and the City ? I am trying here to look at generic aspects of representation of 'cities' in other mediums as well. The aim would be to understand both historical as well as contemporary popular patterns in such representations. Other mediums such as cinema, television and print are well documented and one could look into secondary studies to understand patterns within representation of space in general and city in particular. So a first hand study of various miniature paintings, can help us tease out the issues associated around representation of space. I am assuming the conceptual basis of a representation might be same irrespective of medium or sometimes even time period. For example, I have listed out how the juxtaposing of different context in one fictitious representation in street posters is an important phenomenon that aims at lifting the present state of imagination to a different level/ world whereby creating a condition far removed from the context of its production but still very much part of us. See the first report for an elaborate account of posters and textbook representations.

Miniature paintings of various schools within India (Rajasthan, Kangra, Madhubani) have been an important documentation on the life and times of the place and its people. I have picked up the Rajasthani Miniature tradition to try and understand issues around representation of the city. Let me clarify on what I mean when I refer to a “city”.

City as a Cultural Concept: A settlement with its houses, streets, public buildings and markets, etc., is the stage for a complex social, economic and political negotiations. It is the arena where individual and groups are constantly engaged in charting, modifying and testing ideas of production in material or non-material terms. It is the place, where people with different skills, varied cultural background and divergent belief systems come together to forge a common identity and yet retaining something of their own connecting them back to their “native” town. Yes, it is still not very uncommon to be asked about ones “native” in public schools in India.. A question that tries to locate you with your region irrespective of your present identity. This meliu of different people, contradictory systems and varied aspirations creates a state of constant negotiations and flux that gives rise to what we call as the ingenuity of a city; be it arts, literature, engineering, performance or governance. So city really is not about size or spread or population. It is really about a set of relationship that shows immense complex attributes of social and material culture in a limited space.

Readings from Miniature Paintings

Imagined Geometry in a City

Cities are represented through use of geometry; a man-made system to organize and visualize the surroundings. Geometry becomes the basis to attain clarity. With the absence of perspective, the use of geometry becomes even more creative and division of paintings into various planes allows immense variation of expressions. But part of the city like streets, sidewalks, palaces, houses are all neatly placed in geometrical orthogonal planes. The  character of the space is then attained not by photographic representation but juxtaposing and shifting of planes. The reliance of geometry for creation of the image is not only utilitarian but symbolic as well. It is in fact a statement on how they perceive the city and the surrounding nature. Geometry complements what is missing in nature. A visual order that is predictable and symbolic of the human will in face of harsh unforgiving surroundings.

Thus, the creative play of planes creates a sense of illusion, mystery and spontaneity usually associated with Indian cities. These paintings are a good example of non realistic expressions of the space that capture the spirit of the place from both spatial and cultural perspective. The question of modes of spatial representation and its relationship with the physical space is one that even concerns our study when we discuss how cities are represented on the Internet.

Figure 1 Geometric Clarification 
 Geometric Clarification

Nature and the City

Similar to the search in posters, I tried to look for a very fundamental  relationship of cities with nature in the Miniature painting traditions. It becomes very obvious, while pouring through different painting styles of India that city and nature were posited in a binary relationship. Nature is the anti-thesis to the city. Nature was wild with dense forests, dark clouds, water and animals whereas cities were organized by citizens.

Figure 2 Representation of Nature
 Representation of Nature

Nature was also the ground for forays by men and their army or the acetic but they all came back to the city. So city was the refuge  for mankind and its civilization. Nature was wild, rich and also unpredictable. But still there are patterns in nature that humans understand; the waves of the water, the vegetation cover of the trees, the dance of the rains. Cities were the viewpoints from where nature that exists outside were seen.  The dichotomy of the city and the surrounding forms the backdrop of most visual expression dealing with the space.

All pictures from Garden of Cosmos, The Royal paintings of Jodhpur. Thames and Hudson Publication.

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Prasad Krishna

Prasad Krishna previously worked in a newspaper and some reputed publications. He is MA in English, PGD in Journalism and LLB from the University of Delhi.