Thursday, May 24, 2018

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Posted at: Jan 7, 2018, 1:34 AM; last updated: Jan 7, 2018, 1:34 AM (IST)

Let a hundred flowers blossom

The ‘Summer of Love’ anniversary reminds how flowers have been an unmissable motif in Asia

A heart that is distant creates a wilderness round it.

I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge,

Then gaze long at the distant summer hills...

In these things there lies a deep meaning;

Yet when we would express it, words suddenly fail us.

Tao Yuanming Chinese poet (4th century)


San Francisco: Be Sure to Wear 

Flowers in Your Hair

Title of a song by John Philips, 1967


Just as — a few short weeks back — I was about to enter the imposing building which houses the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, I saw boldly painted on the pavement outside, a series of large flowers. Flowers under feet, I wondered to myself? Finding that unusual, for it is not common for pavements, certainly in front of classical looking museum buildings, to be so ‘decorated’, I asked a colleague inside what they were about. And quickly came the reply: it is to remember and evoke what happened here, around this spacious square and in the surroundings, 50 years ago. To be candid, that event had gone out of my mind, but suddenly it all started coming back: Images, for instance, of the 1967 ‘Summer of Love’, when, inspired by and at the height of the ‘Hippie’ movement, nearly a hundred thousand people – representing a peaceful, if drug-begentled sub-culture — gathered in the close-by Haight-Ashbury district, protesting the rising consumerist values and, among other things, opposing the Vietnam War. “Turn on, tune in, drop out”, urged Timothy Leary; “Make Love not War” was the cry, and flowers were their weapon. One recalls those moving photographs of young men greeting armed soldiers surrounding them — prepared for any riots that might break out — with flowers, and inserting them into the threatening barrels of their guns. Flower Power was the theme.

The flowers painted on the pavement outside served, in some ways, as reminders, but the celebration of that past event did not remain confined only to those paintings: inside the Museum, just concluded, there had been a whole exhibition on flowers, predictably titled ‘Flower Power’. However, the show did not focus directly on that old event; instead, it aimed at exploring ‘The Meaning of Flowers in Asian Art’, which it did with some splendid images, all drawn from the collection of the Museum. “Flowers in art tell,” the essay introducing the exhibition began, “of our need for symbols of everything that is good in us.” And having stated that, it spoke of how, in Asia, flowers mean specific things in different art works. Concentrating in particular on certain flowers, the essay drew attention to the distinctive associations they had: thus, when one thinks of the lotus, Transcendence comes to mind, the essay said; the plum and the cherry, both of short-lived beauty, stand in the arts of China, Japan and Korea, for Transience; the chrysanthemum, considered a flower of autumn, conjures up, on account of the season’s sombre traits, Reflection; and with the tulip and the rose one moves into the world of Elegance and Refinement. Arbitrary and subjective perhaps? But there is certainly something to learn from this categorisation, for it makes one pause and think.

Personally, I found the section featuring the lotus especially fascinating: not only because we see the flower all the time in our own paintings and sculptures — symbolising water, when it appears in the hands of the great god, Vishnu; the dawn, when the sun-god Surya holds it aloft in both his hands; prosperity, when it appears in association with goddess Lakshmi; detachment and a certain distancing from earthly things, when one sees deities perched on it — but also because the notes in the catalogue spoke of the real powers of the flower: its known ability to survive and stay pristine in muddy waters of course; its capacity to produce seeds that can remain viable for more than a thousand years; and its properties that self-regulate its temperature. Fertility, creation, regeneration, spiritual perfection, all come to mind.

The plum, the first flower to bloom when all others are dormant, represents, I came to learn, the first month in the Chinese lunar calendar, and the cherry tree which blooms in the middle of spring, but only for about a week, naturally becomes ‘emblematic of the ephemerality of life’. The chrysanthemum, insignia of the emperor of Japan and of the imperial family, and which adorns countless screens of exquisite beauty in that land, stays in the mind as evocative of transition, reflection, and introspection, while serving also as a symbol of longevity, largely due to its long blooming season. And, finally, there is the tulip which symbolised at one time the power and the wealth of the Ottoman Empire, and the rose in which our own poetry, and that of Persia, is so deeply soaked, and which is paired so often with the nightingale, stands for the union of love, both spiritual and worldly.

Nearly all the works in this exhibition went back considerably in time, some of them with centuries upon them, but the catalogue opened with a relatively recent work, a 19th century painted panel on wood, that came from Thailand. And it did so with justice, for it illustrated, brilliantly, the power of flowers. The episode it depicts is that of the Buddha seated, deep in meditation, which the demon Mara sets out to disturb and destroy. On the right side of the panel appears the demon-king on elephant back, with all his hordes holding threateningly poised weapons. But when the Buddha calls upon the Goddess Earth to his aid, she rinses her hair to create a massive flood in which all the forces of evil are washed and lotuses bloom everywhere. In the left half of the panel, one sees the demon Mara on his elephant and his hordes again, but this time with their weapons replaced with lotuses, their attitude that of humble, reverent submission. The path to enlightenment is cleared. 


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