From brilliance to dust

 

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Category: Profiles Date: 30 Jan 05

 

All families have ancestors whose quirks are passed down the generations and repeated so often that they become part of your own experience.

 

My favourite stories are those of my great grandmother. With her despairing and adoring husband looking on helplessly, she lived life to the extreme.

 

When the first tiny aircraft was flown in India, she was on that flight, while her trembling husband waited for her to come down. She was an excellent equestrian.

 

Instead of riding side-saddle like women of her time would, she shocked by wearing jodhpurs and took off for long rides in forests and fields, kicking dust in the face of everybody who wanted to hold her back.

 

On an international flight years later, she smuggled a watermelon to London by forcibly stuffing it under the folds of the sari of her middle-aged daughter, and pretended she didnít know her own daughter when the wretched thing rolled down the airplane aisles.

 

The story that really caught my imagination was her penchant for hoarding material. She had a thing for cloth. If she liked a piece of brocade, or silk, or cotton, she bought it not by the yard, but by the bolt.

 

The strange thing was she never used that cloth. She put it all away in a room which she locked. The key was always worn around her neck.

 

She sent her daughters to school with a skeletal wardrobe that would be worn down to rags by the end of the school term.

 

Even as her hoard in the room grew, her own wardrobe shrunk until she was close to wearing rags. If anyone suggested that she open that room she would think they were after her things and didnít care for her, and stop speaking to them.

 

On her deathbed, she wore the simplest of saris that even the humblest person in India wouldnít want. A few days after she died that key was used. The room was opened by her daughters.

 

The exquisite cloth glittered, through the dim light allowed in by the filigreed windows. The jewelled colours bounced off the walls, the weaves of the bolts lay in waves, piled high.

 

Naturally, as women do with lovely things, each of the three daughters wanted to touch. But a shocking but not unexpected thing happened when the women picked up the cloth.

 

At the slightest touch, the brocade fell into tiny particles of dust, the chiffons came apart like wet paper, and the room of treasures turned into rubbish in seconds.

 

Her legacy.

 

You may think this is a long stretch of the imagination, but itís what I thought of while showing a friend from England some of the panyards.

 

We parked at a spot where people were beavering away quietly like the tiny magic men in the fairy tale who worked all night to make shoes of breathtaking beauty for the poor shoemaker, heads bent, brows furrowed in concentration.

 

There were flashes of silver, pink, gold, glitter, jewelled beads and feathers. So much care in anticipation of the people who would breath life, beauty, tradition into their work.

 

In our little pre-Carnival lime, there were women who remembered Sparrow's tunes from 1969, an unforgettable costume from 1975, flashes of paint and colour, tinsel and non-stop 48-hour exuberance, heart-stopping brilliance in the kings and queens costumes.

 

I marvelled as the manager of the band, who said that pan had a way of getting under your skin. Never mind that even if it doesnít pay, even if it means hours, days and weeks of practice and sacrifice for weeks, the three minutes in Panorama was worth it all.

 

Never mind, said the arranger, that pan was dying; that instead of rehearsing 15 tunes, they were down to one for the season.

 

Never mind, said the masman, that all people wanted was feathers and that beads were discarded on Ash Wednesday. It was their passion.

 

Breaking the spell of the evening of glitter, and movement and energy and pan, thinking of my great grandmother's exquisite passion turning into dust, I asked these questions:

 

Why donít we have a national school of pan, where children learn to read music? Why donít we have a museum of costumes? Where is the definitive archive of priceless calypsos? Where is the legacy?

 

No one responded, reluctant to break out of their Carnival spell. Itís broken for me. I know where itís going, all that energy, the extremes, the brilliance.

 

To dust.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur