Saturday, July 31, 2010

Red Earth and Pouring Rain

The towering, sprawling masterworks of Indian literature – especially the love poem the Ramayama, and the Muhabarata, which includes the Bhagavad Gita – are unruly, shaggy dog tales that read like a combination of Beowulf, Dante’s Inferno, and Milton’s Paradise Lost rolled into one. They are story upon story upon story, and to many westerners first exposed to them, they were seen as inferior literature, because they didn’t follow Plato’s unities of poetry. But the authors of these great Hindu epics have produced some of the most soaring, transcendent literature civilization has ever produced.

We have advanced somewhat since those years of the Raj, an era which demeaned the great Indian literature, in a spasm of Victorian judgment one hopes, with an ability to appreciate these shimmering, epic tales of wars, gods, love and death, and all the rules that make up ethical living, the works have come to take their proper place in the pantheon of world literature. Despite the west’s long standing ignorance, many have come to appreciate the awesome literary efforts that these works represent.

Vikram Chandra channels these ancestors in his novel Red Earth and Falling Rain, which in some ways out does even those two thousand year old Vedic texts. The title of the novel comes from a Tamil poem nearly 2,000 years old, which at least in translation, echoes contemporary passions:

And how

Did you and I meet ever?

But in love

our hearts have mingled

as red earth and pouring rain.

In post-modern western literature, we have become accustomed to stories within stories; wordsmiths shattering rhetoric and syntax for some deeper truth, but mostly we remain cued to the importance of one central story. So as writers like James Michener and William Faulkner (not exactly post-modernists; but the point holds nonetheless) spin their complex tales, we always refer back to the central story to know where we are and what is the perspective from which we are observing.

In Chandra’s epic work, our attention is constantly pulled, to the point we don’t quite know what is the central story: a young Indian, returning to India from California with a broken heart, a magic realism tale of a monkey pulled back from the brink of death by his ability to tap out fantastic stories on an old typewriter, visits from a number of the best known Hindu deities – most notably Ganesh the laughing Elephant god, and Hanuman, the monkey-like god of war, battle and alliances.

In the tradition of those great Hindu epics, Chandra leaves our head spinning, unable to decide where the center of the story is. In a playful way, we are always brought back to the story of the type-writing monkey, whose story – as fantastic as it is – is no comparison to the swashbuckling tales of the two young men – Sikander and Sanjay, born at the same time – as they travel across the subcontinent, facing adventures, growing up, suffering and becoming men.

Oh, and for good measure, Chandra even throws in a connection to Jack the Ripper in Victorian London.

Even if your brain is being stretched, trying to figure out which hand to watch while Chandra weaves his magic spells, the tales within tales, the endless stories within stories, are hypnotic, and somehow, deeply moving.

It is said that authors speak through their characters. If this is true, then we can conclude that to Vikram Chandra, humanity’s ability to tell stories is what renders us something like gods. Everyone has a story, and each one makes us a little more human. The stories invest us with dignity, position, and the weight of history, with each telling.

If you try to summarize what the book is about, you would be lost. To be sure, there are some overarching themes of honor, duty, and the unshakable love of family. But to say that, no less than saying the Bible is a book about sin, misses the point entirely. Red Earth and Pouring rain contains the material for at least ten novels. Each story is woven into the others and each leaves off where another begins. Like the nearly endless cycles of life that Hindu tradition tells us is the fate of the world, Chandra’s masterpiece resonates with the vibration of life itself.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Daniel Liebeskind’s Rocky Mountain High

Clearly, the standard was set by Frank Gehry’s gleaming museum in Bilbao and Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Much has been written about how Gehry and his associates used sophisticated computer programs to scope out the complex forms that make up those dazzling buildings.

It always seemed to me, however, that the interiors of those spaces would be so reinforced and engineered that they would make the spaces claustrophobic and alienating, with essentially no vertical walls to enclose the space and windows punched out at strange, vertiginous angles.

Daniel Liebeskind’s new Denver Art Museum faces many of these challenges as well. Planted baldly to the south west of the older Hamilton wing, the prime motif of the new wing is enormous, slashing diagonals of space, bordering on the bombastic; and like the Gehry structures, sheathed in a gleaming metal skin.

To be sure, the outdoor shape of the building is dramatic and eye catching, especially by comparison to the forbidding castle-like Hamilton building, which looks like a ten story prison tower, except for the use of the beautiful dimensional stone-like surface and the elegant clerestory windows punched into that surface. But the Hamilton wing of the museum suffers in the way a lot of modernist/immediately post-modernist architecture does: while it may have looked grand when it was new, from the context of the times and the location, it has not aged gracefully. The Hamilton wing, which was completed in 2006, looks like it could join the ranks of those other modernist icons – Lincoln Center in NY, The Music Center in Los Angeles, The Kennedy Center in Washington, Empire Plaza in Albany – as dated and frankly, a little ugly. This is not to say that the Hamilton wing architecture resembles any of those other modernist milestones, but rather that the impulse of how you plan and build public structures is related.

The museum is set a bit outside of what has come to be called 'LoDo', the lively, popular neighborhood just south of downtown. The museum is in the Civic Center Golden Triangle neighborhood, adjacent to the State Capital, the Denver Mint, and the handsome Denver Public Library .

The great surprise is that inside Liebeskind’s angular prism-like structure, the interior spaces are lovely, slightly mysterious, in a playful hide-and-seek way, and they are quite welcoming.

While there may not be a right angle in the building (except for doors and individual window panes), the spaces never feel threatening or disorienting. Instead, they unfold in a series of surprising, graceful spaces, which seem quite happy to have humans within their volume.

It’s not easy to tell where you are, exactly. The windows in the Liebeskind wing are narrow, and looking out them doesn’t help much to orient the viewer.

Rumor has it that Liebeskind’s ideas for the museum were inspired by the nearby Rocky Mountains, the same inspiration Santiago Calatrava’s is purported to have used as the basis of his Denver International Airport main terminal. Their interpretations couldn’t be more different, but while Liebeskind faced endless challenges to replace the World Trade Center in New York, civic leaders in Denver largely embraces his adventurous ideas.

The result is one of the most eye-catching and welcoming spaces west of the Mississippi, and signals Denver’s arrival on the international scene, not just for it’s football team, mountains, and fresh air, but also for it’s art, culture and architecture.

NB: Form Magazine has just announced that Calatrava will oversee additions to the Denver Airport; the designs for which are typically dramatic and compelling. Take a look at Form's report for the details.