Close encounter of the third kind | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 23, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, October 23, 2011

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Close encounter of the third kind

New York City can be daunting -- even for folks like us who live in other parts of the United States. The crazy traffic pattern, aggressive, fast-paced pedestrians and honking taxicabs can unnerve and intimidate the most seasoned tourist. However, New York natives say that once you start living there, it embraces you like an addictive drug and you cannot live anywhere else with the same fervour and passion.
Whatever may be the truth, my visit to the City earlier this month convinced me that it is indeed a unique experience -- quite difficult to encapsulate in words. For example, just a simple walk through the Village and Soho can provide an all-encompassing view of human diversity. Nigerians trading artisanal crafts from mobile kiosks, Egyptians selling falafel from an improvised joint and Bangladeshis preparing "Nizami Calcutta Rolls" in a restaurant or managing an art gallery which specialises in lithographs by Miro and Dali! What an amazing blend of tastes and cultures!
The other interesting aspect of the City is that, at any time, it offers the richest art and cultural shows that one can find in the US. This month the Metropolitan Museum has a display of Indian paintings (1100-1900) -- Wonder of the Age. The exhibition aims at “dispelling the notion of anonymity of Indian art” which previously focused on the subject matter and type of artistic works rather than on the artists. It showcases 220 chronologically dated pieces, with names of individual painters and their respective styles and techniques.
The high point of my New York visit, however, was a visit to the Asia Society Museum, where two rare exhibits are on display. The first, the Art of Gandhara (1st century B.C.E. to 5th century C.E.), is a presentation of more than 70 extraordinary sculptural pieces from Pakistan. The exhibition is especially remarkable because it illustrates the Scytho-Parthian and Greco-Roman influences on Buddhist art in the North Western part of the Indian sub-continent. The show's highlight, "Vision of a Buddha Paradise," is a frieze of Buddha seated in "Paradise" with life flowing all around.
The other amazing display is a painting exhibition of Rabindranath Tagorebreathtaking in its style and colours. While the Gandhara pieces are perfect depictions of form and shape, Tagore's paintings are examples of how seemingly formless patterns morph into amazing configurations of rhythm and movement. Being a Tagore music enthusiast since my childhood, for me, the paintings, (birds, landscapes and portraits), seemed to present the same harmony and cadence as his poetry and music.
The visits to the three exhibitions reinstated my belief that a close encounter with art and culture can shape or even change a person's attitudes and perspectives. Unfortunately, in recent years the commercial aspect of art has been gaining momentum. We tend to measure benefits in terms of dollars and cents and the idea that a beautiful painting or a melodious musical piece has the spiritual power to change our lives no longer seems credible.
There is, of course, the other important variable to consider -- which is, works of art affect different people in different ways. Many believe that art is a form of amusement and entertainment -- a thing of the moment -- but rarely a challenge for our intellect or deeper instincts. For others, aesthetics are closely related to one's identity and value system. The bottom line is that we don't know what makes people react to art in different ways -- genes or environment?
I happen to be a person with an emotional and intimate relationship with art. This connection resurfaced when I received the news of my mother's passing away, while I was in New York. Unsurprisingly, I found solace in humming Tagore's songs, and the most healing and comforting moments were the ones that I spent with the paintings and sculptures in the museums. Every artistic piece invoked happy memories of my home education in "art appreciation," it helped me bond with my mother, who was a dancer and a great lover of art!
The debate on whether or not art can create harmony and peace within us, or, is just a pleasing pastime, will continue. I know which side of the argument I will always stand on, because, like Tagore, I believe that our very existence is the work of the Master Artist: the "Magician of rhythm, who imparts an appearance of substance to the unsubstantial."

The writer is a renowned Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.

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