Friday, March 2, 2012

Beautiful things from India

I've always had a soft spot for Southeast Asian art. I'm also a folklore buff in general, raised by parents who thought that the best bedtime stories ever were folklore from across the world: Greek myths, Gypsy folktales, Indian legends. My favorite childhood tale was an abridged English version of the Ramayana, an incredible epic that's been told and retold across Southeast Asia for millennia. One fascinating thing about the Ramayana is that there are many many versions of it, because it is largely an oral tradition and it's very very old. In fact, there's an amazing book called Many Ramayanas that is entirely free to read online if you click here -- it outlines and analyzes a bunch of the different incarnations of that beautiful story. Within India alone there are dozens of different tellings of the tale.

I mention this partly because the Ramayana is awesome, and partly because this week's Favorite showcases the diversity of other Indian folklore traditions:

From the Introduction:

This collection of Indian folktales is quite unusual. ... The ninety-nine tales presented here were collected by eighteen regional folklorists from fourteen different languages. They have been edited by four folklorists, two of whom are North American anthropologists and two of whom are Indian experts from two regions in India separated by 1,000 miles.

The Indian subcontinent is vast and various, containing many Indias represented by over 100 living languages, each with its social and territorial dialects, its cultural niches, attendant traditions (oral and otherwise), ten writing systems and over a dozen literary languages.

The stories, of course, are the best part. But I won't spoil them for you when this extraordinary book could be yours for a mere $7.50.

The incredible diversity of India is also showcased in this week's Affordable and Interesting items:

This is a stack of many different antique papers, each bearing the mark of a different seal. The above is a nice one, and others include:


At least two non-Roman alphabets are represented here, and very elegantly at that. There is a note along with the stack of papers that calls them "A fine and neat accumulation of Indian States various court seal documents, all different types. Period: 1845-1940." I am nowhere near an expert, and so my admiration is mostly aesthetic, yet the low price of these seal documents -- only $4.00 apiece! -- tempts me nonetheless. Presumably there are also experts out there who collect historical pieces that show history of the Indian states, and those folks would love these even more. One thing I've learned working at a bookstore is that there are experts about everything.

This week's Collector's Item is both relevant to Indian history, and strangely relevant to modern American history:

Yes indeed, it is an 1866 Indian mortgage contract.

As a calligrapher I am again hypnotized by the aesthetics here, but I think there are probably many more scholarly analyses to be done, if not a sense of pleasure (or sadness) that our forebears dealt with exactly the same issues we deal with nowadays. We are selling this many-paged 1866 Indian mortgage contract for $95.00, and I would be very interested in the perspective of whoever buys it. I'm sure I'll learn a lot from that person if I talk to them.

Au revoir, gentle readers. If you don't purchase any of this India-relevant stuff, then you might at least consider reading the aforementioned Many Ramayanas book (click here!), or perhaps watching the modern cross-cultural video adaptation "Sita Sings the Blues" -- which is free to view online as well. We here at O'Gara and Wilson strive to assist with your cultural education!

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