blog 92 beauty in the eye of the beholder

We carefully boxed up our treasures and tied them to our camels before returning to Peshawar. There we proudly showed them to the officers and NCO’s of the cantonment during a tea. I was trying to get off on a right foot with this military base. I had my Indian family prepare the tea for the British and Sikhs and I asked a Rajput cook to cater the tea for the NCO’s. They came but did not partake. But at least they came. Caste and class can be such a bitch!

Only two officers had memsahibs and Captain Broadfoot kept a stunningly beautiful bibi so things seemed to be better. The one memsahib was a stout, but sensible woman of adventurous personality and notorious temper being Scottish. She said “Nicholson! I hear you are the very devil with your temper! I will challenge you to a swearing match one day!”

“And my memsahib will win too!” her red haired husband replied. Everyone laughed, including me.

“And I love your kilt Mrs. Memahib!” I replied. “And yours too Mr Sahib!” It was actually a joke! I made a joke! And everyone laughed!

The other memsahib was so quiet we forgot she was there until she said “Nicholson. You are surprised by the Greek influence but Peshawar saw quite a Greek afterglow. Around here it is called Gandhara. If you offer money at the bazaar you will get raggedly Pathans coming with all sorts of things.”

“I don’t know if I should. They will smash and bash.”

“But they smash and bash anyway. Anything we and other archaeologists can save will be saved. I can help you box this up and you should send it to safer digs.”

“Wife is an archaeologist” her husband explained. “She digs. Serious digs! I mean she measures as she digs! With fine watercolor brushes! And she takes photographs too! She had been taking some of the very first photographs ever taken of this region! The damn camera is almost as big as she is!”

“How can you afford it?” I asked. “The chemicals and everything?”

“I have a ‘John Company’ stipend from Fort William College. And batta. Without the batta I could not afford it of course. Batta is batta! What soldier does not swear by it! Each time I ship back an intact glass plate to reproduce something never before photographed I get a bonus too. But it is very hard. But I am making history too.”

“The Pathans thought it was like a mirror” her husband explained. “A thing of magic that could steal a soul! Their Imam is a prick.”

“How did you handle it?”

“I claimed to have secretly photographed the old buzzard! And I said I would stick pins into his soul through the photograph! Like a voodoo doll! Unless he kept very far away from me! And was very nice!” and I waved an old hat pin as I told him! So he has been —-very, very, very, nice!” Everyone laughed and applauded Mrs Berenice.”

I was nervy about spending money I frankly did not have on stuff when I was suppose to be sending money home to my mother who would have declared all of this obscene work of the devil.

“I have paid for loot too” Captain Broadfoot said. “Perk of being in Peshawar. And Mrs Berenice is right. We will save it. Believe me Nicholson! The natives around here destroy it regardless. But they know we will buy it and now they offer it to us first. It is like bloodgold. We pay so they don’t murder us and we pay so they don’t murder art! And this Gandhara stuff is great art. No one seems to know much about it and I don’t know if even the British Museum has it. But you can waste your batta on a lot worse!”

I did as I advised. Mrs Berenice introduced me to a bazaar merchant and that basically advertised that I was buying Gandhara. But I let Mrs Berenice advise me. Kushan coins came. More of those mysterious bowl-like disks. I found a stucco fragment of a Greek like young man in a loose cloak around his shoulders, one hand on his bare chest, his hair tousled in Greek waves, his face inclined downwards and at an angle that cast his face in haunting shadows. I got piece of schist stone carved with a lively ground of devotees of the Buddha. Each of the nine small figures was listening enraptured yet totally uniquely. One was bowing, overwhelmed in awe. One was standing in a pompous gesture. One was turned and gesturing to another who sat with his arms casually around one knee. It was quite amazing how the devotees were each so totally lifelike. The costumes were Indian yet executed with all of the grace of some Ancient Greek. The faces and hair were Indian too yet at the same time so naturalistic, spontaneous, and humanistic you would have thought it created in Ancient or Renaissance Rome.

One savage Pathan found two severed heads that were so remarkable it was tragic he had absolutely no idea how amazing they were. It was clear they had no meaning to the man. It was like a man who is tone deaf listening to Beethoven. The life sized severed stucco heads were of a man and woman. The woman had a sort of turban or perhaps even a shroud wrapped about her. One hand was covering her mouth. She was apparently consumed by fear or terror. The other stucco face was of a robust man, the clay’s texture masterful, his hair’s curls just hinted at, his mustache framing a bold, baroque mouth, his nose strong, his eyes round and bold, his eyebrows expressive, his square jaw strong. It had to be a portrait of a real man. How many centuries ago was it done? And the man was dust, his name completely forgotten now!

I got a small weight measure of schist too, reversible, showing wrestlers at an competition on one side and on the other side a Heracles type of fellow with his pet lion. The lion stood at attention like a mastiff dog. The Heracles character had a lion pelt and club so I guess he really had to be Heracles. He was quite nude and very robust. Except for the fact it was carved of native stone and brought by a Pathan I would have fancied it dug up from Thebes or Athens or Sparta.

I also got a three foot tall stone Buddha, almost intact from the chest up. He was probably originally standing, but now he was an heroic torso famed in back by a halo- like stone disk. He had a strong sturdy body, an Indian’s body, not muscular, but still strong, broad shouldered ,virile. His soft robe was draped with Greek elegance with small, fine folds over one shoulder. It was Indian cotton after all and not Greek linen. His Brahmin cord of caste hung across his chest along with a fashionable necklace. This must be the Buddha before he became enlightened when he was a rich Brahmin. There were rich earrings in the elongated lobs of his pierced ears. His hair was up in a stylized turban or crown of some type. His moustache was very Indian, aggressive, yet silky. His chin and jaw was strong in that typical Indian face, round, with sensual cupid bow lips, a thick but handsome nose, and heavy lidded eyes of implied limpid brown depths.

The final coup was a head in marble which had to have been imported into region. Peshawar has no marble. It is so barque you would swear it was done in Rome by Michelangelo yet the face is clearly Indian. I suppose it must be the Buddha before he became the Buddha. It was too tempestuous for the Enlightened One. Yet it nicely hinted of the original passions of the man before his transformation which made his transformation all the more remarkable. If only the body was attached. You had to wonder. The head is life sized and so magnificent. The neck is strong. The head is at a slight angle so the neck throbs. The hair tumbles down from a topknot with grandiose splendor of ringlet curls. His moustache curls up slightly and frames bold but sensual lips and a strong chin with a very slight dimple. His eyebrows arch bold eyes with heavy lids but still large, round, surging with emotion. His cheekbones are strong too, though the face is Indian, round, softer, than the European face. The nose was smashed. A pity but it did not deface the virile majesty of the piece. Mother had never allowed us children to enjoy art or music. I had seen my first art and heard my first music in London with Uncle Hogg. So this was all quite a revelation. But not of course my mother’s version of Revelation.
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One Response to blog 92 beauty in the eye of the beholder

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