Richa S Mukherjee is an award-winning writer, columnist, ex-journalist and advertising professional. She writes across genres and has authored four books of which two are being adapted for screen. She is a blogger and travel writer and contributes to several platforms such as Womensweb, Momspresson and SheThePeopleTv. She is a Sheroes Champ, Blogchatter and Kool Kanya mentor. She has authored several e-singles, anthologies and audio books. Her latest book is The Curse of Kuldhara, the second installment in the very popular Kanpur Khoofiya Pvt. Ltd. series.
Art of living…the Kolkata edition
It was a sticky, hot afternoon. A rotund shopkeeper scratched his ample belly and waved my mother away. ‘Aamar ghoom pacche. Paure aisho ma.’ (I’m sleepy. Please come later.) As a child of 8, I was incensed. Never mind that this dress shopping was part of a promised birthday gift expedition, how could a shopkeeper reject good business for the sake of slumber? Even my childish comprehension of financial and commercial matters couldn’t stomach this phenomenon. The clincher was that he had managed to stay perfectly polite through this dismissal and even addressed her as ‘ma.’ Such a bundle of contradictions! Something, I would gradually learn was a way of life and hardly an anomaly in this delightful city of sweets.
Author and philosopher Matshona Dhliwayo, behind the popular quote, ‘Whoever works hard prospers, whoever folds his hands falters,’ had clearly dished this nugget of wisdom without having a single adda with a Bengali over Biryani. I’m sure he will forgive me for this selective interpretation of his words but they underline some very important aspects of what it is to be Kolkata-vasi.
Someone is watching her. She just doesn’t know it yet.
Nell Sweeney has led an ordinary life. Every day she walks to and from the hospital where she works as a nurse, believing that no harm can befall her.
Until one day she is taken.
Because someone out there has a secret. Someone out there has been watching Nell – and they’ve been watching others like her too.
Nell is the unlucky one – she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. And if she isn’t found soon, someone will make sure that she isn’t the last woman to disappear…
Dark. That is the first word which instantly pops up after I have read ‘The Nurse.’ It had started well when I began reading this one a few months ago, courtesy Netgalley UK. But I had to take a break in reading just while I was warming up to Nelle’s disappearance in the story. It was an unintended break, more like a reading slump or block. I can assure you that a reader’s block is as real as a writer’s block. The best of books cannot, at times, pull the reader back into the orbit of good reading. Rather, it takes a good hour or two or three of unadulterated and undisturbed dousing into the story.
‘The Nurse’ is Nelle’s story – of her disappearance and the mystery behind it – but it is also Marian’s story.
Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better. – Albert Einstein
Anything created by human beings is already in the great book of nature.– Antoni Gaudi
Do you wonder too, if with this novel and principal idea, did Einstein inspire the Art Nouveau movement? I wouldn’t go that far, although this thought of aligning art with nature seemed to be the most popular idea among geniuses in the late 19th century. From Victor Horta in Brussels to his contemporary Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, these artists had created masterpieces that continue to amaze us more than a century later.
While I have seen, observed, written and shared about Art Nouveau marvels in Brussels, there is a big repository in Catalunya (particularly Barcelona) as well. The Art Nouveau movement began in Catalan around 1888 and was named ‘Modernisme.’ Propagated majorly by Gaudi in art and architecture, this was also a literary movement until 1911. Gaudi is, of course, the most famous, since he managed to create a unique personal style outside the realm of Modernisme during the period. Born in Reus in 1852, Antoni Gaudi i Cornet always wanted to study Architecture and did so, graduating in Barcelona in 1878.
Gaudi believed that he had Mediterranean heritage and was deeply influenced by the nature and art there. If you notice the motifs and shapes closely in most of his works, there is a distinct flavour and fragrance off the sea – its waves, the flora and fauna. This set of seven tiles, repeated in a pattern to create this Mediterranean atmosphere is no less than a work of astounding art. They include fossil shell, starfish and algae. These tiles were meant to be used in Casa Batlló, but the plan was scrapped and they were installed in Casa Milà instead. I probably missed clicking these tiles on the Passeig de Gràcia, the footpath right in front of Casa Batlló.
The motifs and symbolisms in Park Güell are better examples of Gaudi’s work in this phase of naturalism. From the iconic mosaic Salamander to benches in shape of a sea serpent, Gaudi has bared his love for nature in this park commissioned to him by the industrialist Eusebio Güell. If you notice the bench closely in the photo below, there are little holes to collect rainwater for the park, designed by Gaudi. The bench has strategic curves too for hosting conversations between the visitors to prevent eavesdropping. If that does not display the genius of Antoni Gaudi, I possibly cannot fathom what else would!
‘If you happen to live in Belgium, you can’t escape the Art Nouveau architecture all around the cities, most of it in Brussels though.’
That opening is a repetition from my first article on Art Nouveau architecture in Belgium. We are blessed to be living in the EU quarter of Brussels, surrounded by wonderful Art Nouveau buildings from 1890-1910. We participated in an Art Nouveau walk on the occasion of World Art Nouveau Day, organised by Dorka Demeter and We Love Brussels. The purpose was to know each other in a group of AN enthusiasts on social media and find some hidden gems in the EU quarter. Presenting a few from the ones we spotted.
Palmerston Avenue 4 – Victor Horta (1895)
Victor Horta designed this famous house for Edmond Van Eetvelde in 1895. The house has four levels, designed symmetrically in riveted metal beams. The designs are subtly exquisite and the garden grill has interesting details. We haven’t been inside the house yet, but it has a stunning winter garden.
Palmerston Avenue 3 x Rue Boduognat 14 – Victor Horta (1896)
Dorka, our guide, shared an amazing story about this enormous house. Georges Deprez was the director of the crystal factories at Val Saint-Lambert. His wife Mrs Van De Velde liked the Hotel Van Eetvelde right across the street and they commissioned Victor Horta to design this house. Horta used his distinct style of waves and created this beauty. The façade has intricate blue stone carvings.
Rue Philippe le Bon 51, 53– Edouard Elle (1902)
This set of twin houses, mirror images of each other were designed by Edouard Elle in 1902. In the last image, note the identical doors, stained glass windows, sgraffito and geometrical windows. I particularly liked the blue stone low arches over the doors. These are a delight to look at, number 53 has been recently renovated.
I have been stitching for years, if I may be allowed to proclaim. And yet, my skills were limited to the basic run and cross stitches. Over the years, I have discovered that there are hundreds of other stitches, of which, a few might be grasped by the limited aptitude that I possess. Despite of having realised so, I did not consciously make an effort to learn those. A fishbone or herringbone stitch looks very beautiful but involves a bit of learning and patience. I found this Embroidery Bingo on social media by Jessica Long and decided to give it a chance. At the end of the year, this was one of the highlights of my otherwise trashy year (2021).
I hadn’t played a Bingo ever, let alone an embroidery one! The task seemed daunting but the tutorial videos were so descriptive and assistive, that now I can assert of having mastered a few of these. Grasped, rather, not mastered. I can safely say that from the above board, French Knots have become my absolute favourite! Since then, I have been using them in my Embroidery Journal for 2022. More on that later. But let me show you the Bingo board for this year with more gorgeous stitches.
1584: Elizabeth I rules England. But a dangerous plot is brewing in court, and Mary Queen of Scots will stop at nothing to take her cousin’s throne.
There’s only one thing standing in her way: Tom, the queen’s trusted apothecary, who makes the perfect silent spy…
2021: Travelling the globe in her campervan, Mathilde has never belonged anywhere. So when she receives news of an inheritance, she is shocked to discover she has a family in England.
Just like Mathilde, the medieval hall she inherits conceals secrets, and she quickly makes a haunting discovery. Can she unravel the truth about what happened there all those years ago? And will she finally find a place to call home?
Let me start with the cover – it is stunning! Kudos to the cover designer for this one. I’m a fan of historical fiction, especially those across various era and kingdoms all around the world. The Queen’s Spy dallies between the Tudor period and present era. This one specifically fascinates me – the cold war between cousins – Queen Elizabeth I and Mary of Scots. Clare Marchant begins her story in 1584, about a displaced man, Tom Sutton, scurrying from place to place for work and shelter. He had the talents of a herbalist/pharmacist and the disability of being deaf and mute. How and what he does for the Queen makes for an inimitable plot. The other track is in Norfolk in 2021 and talks about Mathilde, another displaced soul, similar to Tom. She finds her long lost family and a special heritage in her inheritance that changes her life.
In this part of the world, one would have to be on a constant lookout for statues/sculptures in public places. Some of them might have a piece of history to fall back upon, while others are installations/artworks that might be labelled as quirky. Part of the world where I grew up rarely indulges a concept of artworks on public display. I think we have more murals or graffiti in India than sculptures or installations. A lot depends on the state or central governments for permissions, bureaucracy and the intention to let art permeate into the lives of citizens. In the past few years, I have felt strongly that public artworks play a monumental role in defining a city and shaping its people. The mere mention of Brussels will make you recall the statue of Mannekin Piss, since it has reached the status of a national treasure here. I would not be writing about that overhyped piece though, there is a lot more on the internet if you’d like to search. Travelling through Belgium, I’ve come across quite a few quirky statues/sculptures. Jotting down a few of them, more will follow later.
Leuven is a perfect example of the archetypal European university town. With ancient buildings, cobbled streets, enough greenery and a university founded in 1425, Leuven is often perceived as the perfect city for education in Western Europe. To commemorate the university’s 550 years, they had commissioned for a quirky bookish statue and it had been installed in 1976.
Named ‘Fons Sapientiae’ and fondly called ‘Fonske,’ the statue represents the eternal student. He refills his source of wisdom with water (or beer?) and reads along. The statue is periodically dressed in different costumes around the year. We found him without a costume since its summer, probably. The artist who created Fonske is the famous Jef Claerhout.
Horse Head Fountain (Bruges)
Bruges is one of the most beautiful cities, not only in Belgium, but entire Europe. Bruges in autumn is one of the prettiest sights that you would enjoy. Apart from canals, alleyways and ancient houses though, there are quite a few quirky installations that have a bit of history behind them. We have been to Bruges twice and discovered this horse head fountain the second time.
The troughs below the horse heads are actually filled with water for tired horses. Bruges is famous for horse carriages that impart an old world feel to the tourists. This fountain is placed in midway of the carriage route and the city rules insist that carriage horses should be fed, watered and taken care of. I could not find the artist’s details or date of this installation though.
Zinneke Pis (Brussels)
The last of the ‘piss’ series in Brussels, I like this one much better, it seems more fun. This quirky bronze statue of the third in pissing trio is a cute little dog peeing on a pole. I hadn’t known the history or etymology behind the Zinneke. Research showed that the word can be divided into Zenne-ke – zenne is the Dutch word for the river Senne and the prefix -ke is ‘little’. This dog seems to be peeing in the spot where the Senne river flowed and Brussels was established on its banks.
Zinneke is not fortunate enough like Manneken to be dressed up on occasions though. I think most people in Brussels aren’t even aware of this little one on a street corner. The statue was set up in 1998 and created by Tom Frantzen.
The Bandundu Water Jazz Band (Tervuren)
I must admit that this is my favourite in the list. The Bandundu water jazz band is one of the unique ones that I’ve ever seen. Situated in Park Tervuren, just on the outskirts of Brussels, this large installation was created by Tom Frantzen in 2005. The animals in the band represent the ones that are displayed in the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren. The frogs play the accordion and trumpet, crocodiles play the double bass and drum, and a hippo plays the tuba. All the animals are placed on round leaves of water lily that are arranged like a rotating gramophone record.
We have just been to Leuven a week ago and this giant Thai jewel beetle installation on a pole was surprising to say the least. Situated right before the huge bibliotheque of KU Leuven, this was created by world-famous Belgian multidisciplinary artist Jan Fabre in 2000. The university wanted to commemorate its 575th anniversary and commissioned Fabre to create an installation as a gift to the city of Leuven.
Fabre conceptualised the beetle as the memory of nature, an ancient computer that has been here long before human existence. He named it ‘Totem.’ The beetle represents the collective memory of humans and is placed before the library, which is the repository of knowledge and books. Sounds intriguing, right?
I will keep writing about more such sculptures/statues across Belgium whenever I come across them. There are a lot of historical ones, not necessarily quirky.
I learned about Beguinages for the first time last year while visiting Delft, Netherlands. It wasn’t called a Beguinage, rather Klaeushofje in Dutch (a courtyard of 12 houses for Catholic single women), established in 1605. I had no idea that it was part of an order, or something important in world history. The courtyard was not a large one but it had small apartments surrounded by gardens that are open to public. I was just thrilled to visit a courtyard that was originally built in 1605 and still retained the ancient essence of that era.
Cut to 2021 – we made a day trip from Brussels to another ancient city in Belgium – Leuven, just 26 kms away. As I always research a bit before a trip, Leuven seemed to be insistent on a visit of the Grand Beguinage (Groot Begijnhof). Intrigued at having learned a new term, I looked up Beguinages on the internet. The extent of history that came up is stunning and awe-inspiring.
The Beguine movement started in the 12th century when single women (unmarried/widowed) decided to form a community and live in a semi-religious environment. Women were supposed to live and be cared for by their father/brother, husband or son. The only other choice they had was to become a nun. Doesn’t the first part sound pretty familiar even in the 21st century in most parts of the world? However, at the beginning of the 12th century, single women in the ‘low countries’ (Netherlands, Flanders, Belgium) had few options to survive in the patriarchal society. The convents were mostly full and could not accommodate most of them. They started to devote their life to serve the poor and work for the society without taking religious vows. A new lay religious order was created under Christianity, termed Beguines. They were pious and religious but weren’t bound by the rules of the convent. The Beguines could leave the order at any point of time and get married to start a family. It was more of a spiritual order than a religious one. Some Beguinages were built by the local town officials while others were built by the Christian authorities to house these women. The Beguinages are a beautiful example of communal living by, for and of women. They were architectural marvels as well. The structure included huge open spaces, gardens and cobbled pathways around each house/apartment. The houses were very similarly constructed to each other to impart that community vibe. Bit of utopian socialism in the 13th century, eh? But like every other movement, the Beguines declined since the Council of Vienne by the Catholic church in 1312. Their ambiguous religious status created confusion in the society and in some regions, Beguines were termed obnoxiously religious as well. Marguerite Porete, a mystic Beguine was burned in Paris in 1310 on charges of heresy. Most Beguine orders were absorbed into Christianity hence but some of them survived, especially in Belgium and Netherlands. The last traditional Beguine passed away in 2013 in Kortrijk, Belgium.
We made it a point not to miss the Grand Beguinage in Leuven. It was established in 1232 and is one of the oldest Beguinages in Western Europe. The gate mentions the date it was built and leads to the St. John’s the Baptist Church post the entrance.
None of the oldest houses exist in the Beguinage now. They were demolished and rebuilt in the 16th century during the religious upheaval. There are around 100 houses nestled within 12 alleyways that surround them, including bridges on a narrow portion of river Dijle. It is almost a little town in its own right. I particularly love the local and traditional Flemish Baroque architecture from the 16th-17th century, that is evident in these houses. There are hand pumps and wells from bygone eras that remind of the life Beguines had.
This Beguinage was in dire state in the 196os as the inhabitants couldn’t maintain the ancient houses in their deplorable financial state. The Catholic University of Leuven purchased the property and restored the houses. They turned quite a few apartments into housing for students and visiting professors. The premise is accessible for public viewing but most of the houses are private now. The site was announced as a U|NESCO World Heritage site in 1998.
Did you know? One of the most famous personalities of the Beguine order was Dorothy Day, the American journalist, anarchist and activist?
Loosely translated to ‘The Wall of Love,’ this installation is pure love at Montmartre, Paris. I have been to the city thrice now and visited this wall on our second outing. A search for ‘unusual places to see in Paris’ led to this and we didn’t budge once to skip it. The weather in April is usually pleasant but 2019 saw a mini heatwave and we were exhausted after a hike in the morning to the Sacre Cœur Basilica. A long walk down through the winding lanes of Montmartre led to this refreshing Wall of Love. This was conceptualised by Frederic Baron and executed by calligrapher and mural artiste Claire Kito. There is ‘I Love You’ written in 250 languages for 311 times on 612 tiles of enamelled lava. It was installed in 2000. The beautiful quote on the top says ‘aimer c’est du dèsordre…alors aimons!’ – “Love is a disorder, so let’s love!”
Do you spot আমি তোমাকে ভালবাসি (I love you) in my mother language Bangla, right in the middle? It was so heartwarming and emotionally overwhelming to find your own among 250 other languages from the whole wide world. It’s a one-of-a-kind moment when a part of your social identity is recognised in other continents. I think we stood there for a few minutes, soaking it all in, letting ourselves flow in that moment. It was surreal.