Saturday, July 29, 2023






“And therein lies the whole of man's plight. Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition.”

Milan Kundera,   ( from ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’)


Milan Kundera died in Paris on July 11, 2023. Perhaps best known for his novels, he was also a poet, playwright, and essayist, and wrote several collections of short stories. During my recent visit , I found Kundera's books quite popular in France. One finds people reading him in trains, parks, and buses and to my surprise, I found a lady cashier in a grocery store reverting to Kundera's book after finishing dealing with the customer across the counter. He is read, talked about and loved in France . Not France alone, Kundera swept the world of literature with his style, breaking all barriers and borders. To his readers, he offers a cocktail of fiction, imagery, experimentation, existentialism, humour, philosophy, sex, absurdity, nostalgia and many more things through the characters that he creates. His readers in the communist world were equally swept by the power of his pen and presentation. Kundera also impressed the Chinese writers by adopting an ironic and playful style instead of a head-on depiction of the sharp reality, while his depiction of personal relationships and deconstruction of grand narratives depicted the alienation of human existence under the system in the context of Eastern Europe. 


 Possibly after Albert Camus, Kundera has somehow entered the Parisian hearts. And Gallimard ( Paris ), the publisher of Albert Camus, became his publisher as well. Like Camus, Kundera repeatedly insists on artistic independence. Kundera also shares Camus’s aversion to “commitment literature”. Like Camus , Kundera also has a serious engagement with Truth . “Only a literary work that reveals an unknown fragment of human existence has a reason for being,” he said in the interview. “To be a writer does not mean to preach a truth, it means to discover a truth.”


Kundera started his literary journey with “The Joke”, which was published to acclaim in 1967, around the time of the Prague Spring Movement. He completed his final novel, “The Festival of Insignificance” (2015) when he was living in Paris. He is the author of many other  novels like ,  Life is Elsewhere, Farewell Waltz, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Immortality, and of the short-story collection Laughable Loves - all originally in Czech. His first novel as an émigré was ‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979)’ , a story written in seven parts that showed the power of totalitarian regimes to erase parts of history and create an alternate past.  His most recent novels, Slowness, Identity and Ignorance, as well as his non-fiction works ‘The Art of the Novel’ and ‘Testaments Betrayed’, were originally written in French. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature several times but never won. This is what Daniel Gueorguiev, Senior Librarian, at New York Public Library writes about Milan Kundera:-


“Kundera, however, cannot be positioned only in the political aspect of literary creativity: he mastered “the art of the novel,” polyphony, and farce to perfection. He wrote essays and plays. He meditated on how his works should be perceived, and that it is not advisable to read novels only as psychological manifestations. But seriously, though, why read Kundera? For those of us who flatter ourselves by thinking we belong to the non-conformist camp, Kundera's witty experimental style gives us some of that rebellious woomf enriched by inimitable irony, metaphysical reflections, and philosophical mind games. We read Kundera because we want to be Kundera, or perhaps because we were Kundera at some point in our lives. Each of Milan Kundera's books is a personal experience. We read them because we do not want to be told what to do—because we despise being told what to do.”


Born on 1 April 1929 in Brno, Czechoslovakia, Kundera grew up during the Nazi occupation of his homeland and joined the Communist Party in Prague after the second world war. His father was a famous pianist. He studied in Prague, where he joined the Communist Party, translated the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire (of Polish descent ) and began his literary journey with poetry. He also taught at a film school where his students included the future Oscar-winning director Milos Forman. He was expelled from the party in 1950, rejoined in 1956 and was expelled a second time in 1970 after the Prague Spring Reform Movement – in which he was seen as playing a role. The movement was crushed by the Polish government of the period.




Kundera’s first novel The Joke, a work of dark humour about the one-party state published in 1967, led to a ban on his writing in Czechoslovakia while also making him famous in his homeland. In 1975, he and his wife Vera went into exile in France, where he worked for four years as an assistant professor at the University of Rennes. They were stripped of their Czech nationality in 1979. He became a French citizen and some of his later works were first published in French rather than Czech. Once Kundera left Czechoslovakia for the West, he was able to use the critical faculties he gained from his encounter with communism to compare and contrast the Western and the Eastern and Central European experience to elucidate important aspects of contemporary human existence. In 2019, his native country restored his citizenship and recognised the power of his pen.


It was the publication of 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' in 1984 that confirmed his status as an international star. Set in the heady atmosphere of Prague in 1968 and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the novel follows two couples as they struggle with politics and infidelity, examining the tension between freedom and responsibility. The fact that Kundera himself experienced the Prague Spring as well as the Soviet takeover lends special poignancy to the story. Kundera uses his setting for several important purposes. Not only the question of morality but even the categories of ideological imperatives have also been emphatically interrogated by Kundera in the novel.  Through  the main characters of the novel – Tereza, Tomas, Sabina and Franz , Kundera   problematises the essentialised notions of ethics and morality both in the spheres of private and the public life. Philip Kaufman’s 1988 film adaptation, ensured Kundera’s ascension into the literary stratosphere. Long back I read this book and found something new and unique. In this work, Kundera also reminds his readers to examine the definition of contentment. He asserts that meaning only emerges alongside mourning. ‘In every culture, meaningless happiness usually gets equated with contentment’, he asserts.


On his death, The New York Times wrote this:-


“He had a great gift for subversive humour. In “The Joke”, for example, a woman tries to kill herself by ingesting painkillers, only to find they were laxatives. Kundera’s humour had a deeper purpose. It was often irreverent and mocking; it had an underground quality, and it sprang from his innate distrust of authority. Kundera’s novels, especially his later ones, could be abstract and heavy-handed. His characters, at times, were little more than chess pieces. Their author could be pretentious. His work is filled with observations such as: “In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.” But his best fiction retains its moments of sweep and power.”


Kundera was certainly influenced by many Western philosophers. He also admitted his liking for ancient Indian philosophy, especially the Upanishads. The well-known Indian scholar V V N Rao writes this:-


" There are numerous examples of digestion of Indian literary, philosophical and scientific ideas across the Czech Republic. One, hitherto obscure, example is that of the Czech National Motto. “Truth prevails” (Czech: Pravda vítězí, Slovak: Pravda víťazí, Latin: Veritas vincit) is the national motto of the Czech Republic.There is ample evidence that the source of this motto was not Jan Hus, but the ancient scripture, Mundaka Upanishad. ‘Pravda Vítězí’ (Truth Prevails), is a near verbatim translation of ‘Satyameva Jayate’ (Truth Alone Prevails) ."


I need to add that Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk(1850-1937), as the first President of Czechoslovakia, selected ‘Pravda vítězí’ as the National Motto of Czechoslovakia shortly after independence from Austria-Hungary. Masaryk was a lover of Sanskrit and Upanishads. This topic, I shall deal in a separate write-up later. Till then RIP Kundera. You will be missed.


( Avtar Mota )




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EDITH PIAF.....(1915-1963)

You can't think of France without the Eiffel Tower, Mona Lisa held in the Louvre museum, baguettes, patisserie and Édith Piaf’s signature song, ‘La Vie En Rose’. This song is well-known all around the world.

During my recent tour of France, I also visited Père Lachaise cemetery, the final resting place of some legends in the fields of art, literature, and music including the renowned French singer, songwriter, actor and performer Edith Piaf. Piaf's expressive interpretations of the *chanson, or the French ballad, made her internationally famous. In France, she continues to be revered as a national treasure.

Édith Giovanna Gassion, best known as Édith Piaf is widely regarded as France's greatest popular singer and one of the most celebrated performers of the 20th century. Her songs resonate, and her voice still captivates. To the French masses, she is what Lata Mangeshkar is to the Indians. Written by Piaf in 1945 and released in 1947, her song,' La Vie en Rose' is popular as ever even after 76 years. The Hindi version of this song," Kaisi Paheli Zindagani " is also quite popular. Her other songs that earned her worldwide popularity are, Hymne à l'amour" (1949), "Milord" (1959) and "Non, je ne regrette rien" (1960).

The famed Paris Olympia concert hall is where Piaf achieved lasting fame, giving several series of concerts at the hall between January 1955 and October 1962. Excerpts from five of these concerts (1955, 1956, 1958, 1961, 1962) were issued on record and CD and have never been out of print. In April 1963, Piaf recorded her last song, "L'homme de Berlin".Her music and voice transcend language and time, and will live on for many decades to come.

Piaf was a Parisian local herself. After a tumultuous childhood, she rose to stardom and went on to be one of the most important singers, songwriters, cabaret performers and actresses of all time. She was dubbed "La Môme Piaf" - Paris slang meaning "The Little Sparrow'. She had a difficult childhood. Born in a slum, her mother, the coffeehouse singer Annetta Jacqueline Gassion, was not very passionate about bringing up her daughter, so Édith Piaf lived with her grandmother, who nearly let her starve to death. From the age of three to seven, Édith was allegedly blind, suffering from an eye condition, most likely keratitis or iritis; and from eight to fourteen she was allegedly deaf. According to one of Piaf's biographies, she recovered her sight in what is known as a "miracle", after her grandmother's prostitutes pooled money to send her on a pilgrimage honouring Saint Thérèse de Lisieux. Her father had brought her to live with his  mother, who ran a brothel in Bernay - not a particularly favourable environment for a young girl. She was often beaten by her alcoholic father who forced her to join him in his street acrobatic performances. After a childhood of violence and neglect, Édith Piaf found her way as a street singer. Leaving her father at age 15, she earned her livelihood by singing in Paris. Passing by as she sang, the cabaret owner Louis Leplée noticed her voice and hired her to work at his Gerny's. Leplée gave her the stage name Piaf.

Édith is widely known around the world for her emotional ballads that touch on love, life, and loss. She also starred in a few films. Her track, “La Vie en Rose” made entry into The Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998. A few biographical films have been produced, the most famous being Olivier Dahan’s “La Vie en Rose” (2007), for which actress Marion Cotillard won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Piaf.

Piaf, living through the hurts and abandonments of her early life, had high-profile romances with many of her male associates and some of the biggest celebrities in France. Two marriages and some failed love affairs brought only unhappiness in her personal life. Although she was denied a funeral mass by the Roman Catholic archbishop of Paris, citing Piaf’s irreligious lifestyle, her funeral procession drew 100000 mourners onto the streets of Paris and the ceremony at the cemetery was attended by more than forty thousand fans. *Charles Aznavour recalled that Piaf's funeral procession was the only time since the end of World War II that he saw Parisian traffic come to a complete stop.

In 1951 she was involved in a car accident and after that had difficulty breaking a serious morphine addiction. Addicted to alcohol, She died at the age of 47 from liver cancer. She died in Plascassier, near the French Riviera city of Nice, on October 10, 1963, all too young at the age of 47. Her last words were "Every damn thing you do in this life, you have to pay for'.

She is buried next to her daughter Marcelle in Père Lachaise Cemetery, in Paris, where her grave is among the most visited. The Musée Édith Piaf is a private museum dedicated to singer Édith Piaf located in the 11th arrondissement at 5, rue Crespin du Gast, Paris, France. Admission to this museum is free.

I conclude this write-up on Edith PIAF with a couplet of Urdu poet Jaun Elia:-

" meri taareef kare ya mujhe bad-naam kare

jis ne jo baat bhī karni hai sar-e-aam kare "

(Whether one compliments me, or acts as my critic,

Whoever wants to do anything should do it publicly.)

(Avtar Mota )



Very often "chansons" refers to the French songs sung in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. People who sang these chansons were called "chansonniers". They had various forms, including ballade, rondeau and virelai. Some composers at the time liked to set popular poetry to music.


The singer, songwriter and actor Charles Aznavour, who died aged 94, was one of France’s best-loved entertainers who wrote 800 songs. He was as important a composer and songwriter as he was a singer – and he could be a great actor even without singing a note on screen. Aznavour served as an actor and composer/music arranger for many hit films. Dubbed the "Frank Sinatra of France" and singing in many languages (French, English, Italian, Spanish, German, Russian, Armenian, Portuguese), his touring would include sold-out performances at Carnegie Hall (1964) and London's Albert Hall (1967).

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Monday, July 24, 2023





 ( Location: Sully Wing, Floor 1, Room 348, Louvre Museum, Paris )


The mythological term “hermaphrodite” implies that a person is both fully male and fully female. This is a physiologic impossibility. According to ancient Greek mythology, a hermaphrodite is a female with both female and male reproductive organs. Hermaphrodites were celebrated and worshipped by the ancient Mediterraneans.


Hermaphroditus was a popular subject of paintings and statuary, even if modern audiences are less comfortable with the topic than the ancient Greeks and Romans were. The subject reflects the taste for languid nudes, surprise effects, and theatricality, all of which were prized in the late *Hellenistic period. The Romans and the Greeks sculpted this figure with tremendous care, which can be seen in the details.This work is a Roman copy that was inspired by a Greek original of the 2nd century BC. This best-known sleeping hermaphrodite, now at the Louvre Museum, Paris, was unearthed in Rome in 1608.


 When one walks along this sculpture in the Louvre museum, one is impressed by a gracious and sensuous body that leads one to think that the figure is a female nude in the Hellenistic tradition; this effect is heightened here by the sinuousness of the pose on the soft cushion. The cushion or mattress is widely considered one of the softest-looking cushions ever cut from stone. The billowy mattress was an addition, added by the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini at the request of the work's then-owner, Cardinal Scipione Borghese. However, as one comes closer, one finds that the sculpted human being, although possessing qualities of a female (ornate hairstyle, chest, hips, facial features), has the genitals of a male. This effect of contrast, ambiguity and something strange, plays with the viewer’s emotions. It is the result of the theatricality of some Hellenistic art. In a way, crudest realism has been used in the sculpture to reveal the figure’s androgynous nature. The elements of the sculpture appear soft to the touch. This is complemented by the robe wrapped around her/him, which is 100% the same material but appears to be different.

According to Greek mythology, Hermaphroditos (this female with male genitals) was a child of Hermes and Aphrodite. Aphrodite is the goddess of erotic love who gave birth to a beautiful boy after she fell in love with Hermes. Hermaphroditos is also grouped with other “love-gods” called the Erotes. In the New York Times of June 24, 2016, Daniel Mcdermon writes this:-


"In imperial Rome, sculptures like this( filled the homes and gardens of wealthy people, said Carlos Picón, curator of Roman art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They were seen as light amusements, signifiers of good taste. And it is believed that there were hundreds of them because at least nine copies of the “Sleeping Hermaphrodite” have survived."


In Hindu mythology and art, there is a somewhat similar concept of Ardhanareeshvara. Ardhanareeshvara is a combination of three words “Ardha,” “Nari,” and “Ishwara” which means “half,” “woman,” and “lord,” respectively, which when combined means the lord whose half is a woman. It is believed that the God is Lord Shiva and the woman part is his consort Goddess Parvati or Shakti.In India, we find many sculptures and paintings depicting Ardhanareeshvara. Even some modern artists have painted Ardhanareeshvara. The Ardhanareeshvara represents a constructive and generative power. Ardhanareeshvara symbolizes male and female principles that cannot be separated. It conveys the unity of opposites in the universe. The male half stands for Purusha and the female half is Prakriti. From Kashmir in the North to Thanjavur in the South, from Rajasthan in the East to Bengal in the West, images of Ardhanareeshvara are found with their respective regional variations, the earliest examples date from the second century AD to the present times. earliest Ardhanareeshvara images are dated to the Kushan period, starting from the first century. The Puranas and various iconographic treatises write about the mythology and iconography of Ardhanareeshvara. While Ardhanareeshvara remains a popular iconographic form found in most Shiva temples throughout India, very few temples are dedicated to this deity.


( Avtar Mota )



*The Hellenistic Period is a part of the Ancient Period for the European and Near Asian space. The use of this period is justified by the extent of the Hellenic Culture in most of these areas, due to the Greek political presence especially in Asia after Alexander's conquests, but also to a new wave of Greek Colonisation In consequence, the Hellenistic Period is usually accepted to begin in 323 BCE with Alexander's death and ends in 31 BCE with the conquest of the last Hellenistic kingdom by Rome, the Lagid kingdom of Egypt. For the Asian part, we could lengthen it to 10 BCE, when the last Indo-Greek kingdom was conquered by Indo-Sakas.



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CHINAR SHADE by Autarmota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.
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