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The sign of our times, since forever really

One weekend while conducting a six-hour Q&A-driven university workshop on Indian concepts, I was asked : which symbol did I think best depicted ‘Hinduism’, the Om, the Swastika or the Bindu? I thought it could well be the Prashna Chinha or Prashni (‘Prat-sa-ni’) as Thais call it, the Question Mark, which is a universal impulse. Renuka Narayanan writes.

india Updated: Jan 28, 2012 23:03 IST

One weekend while conducting a six-hour Q&A-driven university workshop on Indian concepts, I was asked this interesting question: which symbol did I think best depicted ‘Hinduism’, the Om, the Swastika or the Bindu? I thought it could well be the Prashna Chinha or Prashni (‘Prat-sa-ni’) as Thais call it, the Question Mark, which is a universal impulse.

I went to an early litfest in Jaipur in December 2008 called ‘Mantles of Myth’ and wrote about it for HT’s Comment Page. A three-day international conference on Indian textile narratives at the Diggi Palace convened by designer Pramod Kumar KG and Mita Kapur of Siyahi, it was a feast of history and art. The eloquent scholars, designers and writers gathered there illumined and interpreted how people used thread, cloth and colour to express their deepest ideas and intuitions about themselves and the world.

One of the presentations that stayed with me as exemplary was by couture designer Wendell Rodericks of Goa. He explained the history of the old Goan skirt-blouse-stole ensemble called Pano-Bhaju, which bore witness to the state’s history and the changes enforced when the Portuguese converted Hindus, held an Inquisition and abolished Indian clothing edict by edict in the 17th-18th centuries. Rodericks spoke with passion and detail, sharing this story through archival slides.

He showcased that history works best when not brushed under the carpet but faced squarely as past; that we can and do move on creatively and culturally. His talk and that of others embodied the spirit of the Prashni.

As for Anna L. Dallapiccola, former Professor of Indian Art at the South Asia Institute at Heidelberg and author of the catalogue of South Indian paintings at the British Museum! She spoke on samples of 19th century ‘kalamkari’ Ramayana hangings at London’s Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum, which may seem a super-specialised topic to some of us. But it was her devotion to her subject that made me realise, with a catch in the throat, just how splendid and bold it was that people attempted on a bit of cloth, with one pot of indigo and another of sienna, to imagine and depict a glimpse of the ‘aprameya’ (immeasurable) identity of ‘God’.

How moving is mankind, so frail yet brave, always asking, examining, inventing and sharing. But for the Prashni, would we have narratives? Would we be human?

Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture
shebaba09@gmail.com