The Story of Art

May 26, 2018 § 1 Comment

uffizi-bookUffizi: Art, History, Collections (Fossi, Gloria)

I have visited art museums for over 20 years, and when I do, I take a long time. I’m the one driving the rest of the group crazy by trailing two rooms behind, reading every citation, listening to every number that the audio guide allows me to punch in.

I am by no stretch of imagination a connoisseur of art. I do not have a highly sensitive and refined aesthetic sense. I merely like a good story, and every piece of art tells a story. Mostly, with European art between 1400-1900, it tells a mythological or historical story, and those are the ones I love most, but even when it is a portrait of some noblemen, or the picture of a woman pouring milk, there is a story being told by the painter, and another story behind it about how and why that painting was created in that particular way. Modern, abstract art has fascinating meta-stories too, but the narrative arc of the art itself is harder to decipher.

I rarely leave a museum without paying a visit to the store. I do not even know why I do it: every book is twice as expensive as outside the museum, every image is available for free on the internet. The trinkets are mass-manufactured in a Chinese factory. Yet I own more souvenirs than memories, and if I drank a cup of coffee for every coffee table book I bought at a museum store, I would be buzzed for days on end.

Here is one of them.

Florence is a beautiful city, and home to some of the best Renaissance art in the world. In this city they congregated under the lavish patronage of the Medicis – religious men like Beato Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi, masters like Sandro Botticelli, Donatello, Ghirlandaio, Piero della Francesca, and a hundred others, and they erupted joyously into magnificent creativity. But the passion and wealth of the Medici family meant that local painters were only one of the sources for the art. From Rome they procured Raphaels,  from Arundel Hans Holbeins, from Venice, Bellinis and Titians.

The Medicis were no ordinary family. Originally in the textile trade, they went on to own the largest bank in Europe in the 15th century, and political power and prestige were not far away. Three popes hailed from the family, and they maintained an iron grip on the government of the city of Florence for centuries.

In 1560, at the peak of their success, Cosimo I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, commissioned a vast building to serve as the administrative and judicial offices of his government. He hired his friend Giorgio Vasari to design and supervise the construction, and to help with the interior decor. Vasari, besides being an architect, was a dab hand at painting himself, but most importantly, had an encyclopedic knowledge of art. He is best known today as the man who extensively chronicled the Renaissance, writing about the lives of all the great artists of his generation and of the ones immediately before. Cosimo and Vasari both died in 1574, but the building was completed, and became operational soon thereafter as a government office. The Medici family continued to use large parts of it as their personal property (I suspect they used the government similarly). There is a record of a letter received by the office in 1590 with a request that might have seemed odd at the time. A private citizen requested permission to visit the office and walk around, not to transact government business, but to look at the magnificent paintings on the walls, the personal collection of the Medici family, curated for them by Giorgio Vasari. The request was granted, and so were subsequent ones, and this soon became a thing to do for the well-heeled in Florence.


The house that Cosimo built: The Uffizi Gallery in Florence

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The Roots of the World Tree

May 19, 2018 § 2 Comments

proseeddaThe Prose Edda (Sturluson, Snorri)

Norse myth has suffered an interesting fate in modern times. It has inspired the most popular fantasies of our times. The ‘Lord of the Rings’ books and movies, The Game of Thrones, and the blond and blue-eyed Thor of the Avengers, all owe their origin to Norse tales. And yet, I don’t believe Norse mythology itself is popular – people outside Northern Europe wouldn’t know their Frigg from their Freyja.

So allow me to introduce the Icelandic Prose Edda to you.

The Eddas were written down in the 13th century but pertained to an oral story-telling tradition from earlier times. Most of it stemmed from the Viking Age between 800-1100 AD, when Scandinavians explored and pillaged their way across coastal Europe, but some stories are from even older times.

By the 13th century, things had calmed down significantly and the Icelanders had peacefully turned Christian. The Eddas were a way of keeping alive cultural memories and a sense of sharing a common origin with other Scandinavians. The old forms of worship had been discarded, but the stories remained as cultural heritage (like the 11th century Shahnameh in Persia) The gradual religious transition and the large number of alien cultural traditions that the Norsemen had encountered over time, were all put in the melting pot, and out of it came the smorgasbord that we know as the Eddas.


The World Tree: an apt metaphor for world mythology (Pic. courtesy, Alayna Danner)

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Visual but not Basic

May 7, 2018 § 4 Comments

tufteThe Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Tufte, Edward R.)

Tufte self-published this book in 1980 after every leading publishing house had rejected his design and unique concept for the book. It became an instant commercial hit, and is still today the go-to book on the subject of information design or graphical data visualization. They called him the da Vinci of data, the Galileo of graphics.

Tufte’s concept for the book was straightforward: he wanted it to be (at the same time) economical, accessible to a wide audience, and what he called “self-exemplifying”: the visual design of the book had to embody the intellectual ideas advanced in the book.

What were these ideas? That visual representation had to be well-designed, with “complex ideas communicated with clarity, precision and efficiency“. That visual graphics are at the center of the design, and words, if necessary, are there merely to tell the viewer how to read the design (not what to read in terms of content). The name of the book is self-explanatory and precisely worded, and the cover isn’t overly decorated. It is what is says on the tin: a book on the visual display of quantitative information. Tufte uses glossy pages, clean, readable typography, and puts the charts at the center of his book. There are charts and graphs on every page, examples from around the world, from business and other domains, charts across centuries – from the pioneering works of William Playfair (and a couple from even earlier), to a depiction of the story of the 2004 baseball season (in which a total of 4,856 data points are represented in a tiny bit of space, employing different font colors, sparklines, words and numbers). Throughout the book, Tufte uses words only to point out the admirable qualities of the charts he shows us on every page, and to articulate epigram-like principles of good graphical design, like

  • “Graphical excellence requires telling the truth about the data”
  • “Graphical elegance is often found in the simplicity of design and complexity of data”
  • “For non-data ink, less is more. For data ink, less is a bore.” (he credits Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Robert Venturi for this one)

A few weeks ago, i had waxed lyrical in these pages about Daniel Levitin‘s “A Field Guide to Lies and Statistics“, which examined the deliberate and inadvertent misuses of statistical analysis. Levitin taught us how to identify common fallacies and standard strategies used by the purveyors of falsehood, and he taught us how we could correctly analyze the data for ourselves.

Edward Tufte’s book is the mirror image of Levitin’s. It is the positive Yang to Levitin’s Yin. The integrity of the data analyst  and the intelligence of the audience are not critical concerns for Tufte: he takes these for granted. Far too much attention has been squandered on suspicion of the analyst’s honesty, he believes, and not enough has been invested on teaching her how to present the data meaningfully.

Much of 20th century thinking about statistical graphics has been preoccupied with the question of how some amateurish chart might fool a naïve viewer. Other important issues, such as the use of graphics for serious data analysis, were largely ignored. At the core of the preoccupation with deceptive graphics was the assumption that data graphics were mainly devices for showing the obvious to the ignorant. The assumption led down two fruitless paths…first, that graphics had to be ‘alive’, ‘communicatively dynamic’, over-decorated and exaggerated (otherwise all the dullards in the audience would fall asleep…) Second, that the main task of statistical analysis was to detect and denounce deception (the dullards could not protect themselves)

 Ay, there’s the rub. This might be the only ‘flaw’ in the book, especially for people who, like me, as dullards when it comes to visual design.

The overarching Tufte maxim is this:

Give the user the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.

It is best exemplified by the famous Carte Figurative of Charles Joseph Minard that analyzes Napoleon Bonaparte’s disastrous winter campaign in Russia. Tufte loves this graphic so much, he prints it thrice in the book and calls it “possibly the best statistical graphic ever drawn“. Take a look.


Charles Minard’s graphic of Napoleon’s Russian campaign

In a single diagram, we get an accurate and intuitive sense for the size of Napoleon’s army, the direction in which the troops were moving, their location on a map of Europe, and even the ambient temperature, at various junctures between the summer of 1812 and spring of 1813. So if you have a good working knowledge of European military history in the Napoleonic years, a reasonable idea of the topology and climate of Western Russia, and the time and patience to look carefully at every dot of ink on the graphic, you will be amply rewarded.

Minard’s chart is like War and Peace condensed on to a single page. And unlike Tolstoy’s 1000-pager, practically no detail on Minard’s graphic is superfluous. Every drop of ink conveys information, usually more than one piece of it. It is a work of art, to be appreciated by connoisseurs – like a TS Eliot poem, not a word out of place, every element super-saturated with meaning: but only appreciable by those who are willing and able to put in the effort.

For the rest of us, we should pause, as we do at a museum, and admire the clever art, but when we’re out there in the streets, we’re better off with Daniel Levitin’s survival guide, learning to ward off the hordes of internet scamsters and fake news fiends out to get us. .

The Shape of the Story

April 29, 2018 § 1 Comment

morphtaleMorphology of the Folktale (Propp, Vladimir)

Propp was a 20th century scholar who studied in great detail the form and structure of Russian folktales. He published The Morphology of the Folktale in 1928, and it was a product of its times.  Just as all matter had been resolved into its constituent elementary particles, all living creatures into kingdoms, classes, orders and species, Propp resolved to find the key to the classification of all folklore. He was aware of the work of Antti Aarne (which later became the basis for the Aarne Thompson classification of folklore motifs) but Propp wanted to go beyond motifs, into the individual atomic ‘functions’ or devices within a motif.

Cruel Stepmother Sends Out Hero on Impossible Mission could be one motif-complex, for instance. For Propp, the motif consisted of a series of ‘functions’. You start with a cruel stepmother – or an evil uncle, a dragon, the emperor, jealous older brothers. The mission could be for the feather of a firebird, a hair from the devil’s beard, the milk of a tigress, or the answer to a riddle. The mission could be given to a stepson – or the village idiot, a youngest child, a prince, a brave hero, a heroine. The path could lie through forests, rivers, mountains, cities, the underworld. On the way, the protagonist might meet an old beggar, an animal, a talking bird, a magic tree or a sorcerer. And so on.

Propp’s insight was this: while there were hundreds of possible motifs, many of which overlapped with others, the number of the constituent functions was relatively small – in fact, he counted merely 31 in total. Using permutations and combinations of the individual choices at each of these 31 stages, he felt he could not merely reconstruct every folk tale that existed, but every conceivable one:

It is possible to artificially create new plots of an unlimited number. All of these plots will reflect a basic scheme, while they themselves may not resemble one another. In order to create a folktale artificially, one may take any A, one of the possible Bs, then a C, followed by absolutely any D, then an E, then one of the possible Fs, then any G, and so on.


The Baba Yaga: By Ivan Bilibin – Self-scanned, Public Domain,

The theory is intriguing, but the book isn’t exactly a page-turner, reading as it does like an academic paper. My main criticism is that it doesn’t address the Why question.

Why do so many folktales from so many parts of the world fit these patterns? Propp doesn’t answer it, but a plausible reason is provided in another book I’d read recently: The Singer of Tales, reviewed here. When the telling of tales is an oral art, performed by resourceful professionals who adapt instantly to audience whims and local tastes, the form of the tale has to be modular with decision points and a limited number of options at every turn. The only thing proved by Propp’s thesis (the uniformity of folk tale construction) is that Russian folk tales (like many others) propagated by oral tradition and professional story-tellers. Stories that are written down do not need to follow set patterns of form.

The fact that all Russian folk tales can fit into the combination of 31 ‘functions’ is an engaging piece of trivia. The more interesting question, in my opinion, pertains to the similarity of content (not form), between folklore from different parts of the world. Why do stepmothers, witches, old women and queens turn out to be evil so often? Why do fathers frequently fail to recognize their sons? Why do birds and snakes talk so often, but not other familiar animals like dogs, cows or horses? Why are heroines given rules to follow, and why do they always break them? What is universal in the evolution of societies and in the nature of humans, that causes themes like these to occur repeatedly across cultures that have had no contact with each other?

Intent only on studying the form of the folktale, Propp doesn’t go too far down this path, though he hints at the gist of it.

The reasons for these substitutions are often quite complicated. Real life itself creates new images which supplant many folktale personages. The ethos of neighboring peoples exerts its own special influence, as does written literature, religion and superstition. The folktale preserves traces of ancient paganisms, customs and rituals. The folktale has gradually undergone a metamorphic process, and these transformations and metamorphoses are subject to certain laws. These processes create a multiformity which is difficult to analyze.

To find the secret behind these transformations of folklore is the difficult-to-analyze mission I’ve set myself. I am fascinated by the shifting shapes of the tales themselves, how they changed across cultures and contexts, and in what ways they remain the same: and why.

Every time I open a book on the study of folklore, I’m alone on a horse, the winding road lies ahead, it leads into an enchanted forest, and the adventure begins…

Hit or Myth?

April 23, 2018 § Leave a comment

dduttJaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata (Pattanaik, Devdutt)

Devdutt Pattanaik hit the Indian bookshelves with a bang in the late 1990s, and became a celebrity over the next decade or so. He struck a rich vein of resurgent middle-class interest in mythology, culture and spiritualism, and he mined it to the hilt. His terse prose, peppered with “commentary” boxes with bullet points, and elegant artwork that merged modern and traditional themes, were lapped up by an admiring nation. Here was a man who clearly understood his market at least as much as he did his matter: he shrewdly moved into the lucrative territory of corporate India, mixing leadership advice, corporate culture and mythological lessons with aplomb.

But marketing nous involves a large dollop of discretion, especially given his field of mythology, a powder keg in today’s India. Here’s an excerpt from his Wikipedia entry:

Devdutt is known to avoid partisan views and points to the strengths and weaknesses of the Left and the Right, the secular as well as religious, the capitalists and the communists, the patriarchs and the feminists… He is wary of the influence of ‘white saviours’ on liberals as well as religious radicals. He has been rather contemptuous of the hyper-nationalism of a section of American Hindus who are clueless about Indian realities. He also frowns on secularists and atheists who deny their own missionary zeal and mythic structure, and see themselves as ‘rational’

That’s a lot of tight-rope walking! Still, I believe he has now managed to fly too close to the sun, and his wings may yet get singed, if not clipped.

I had read his retelling of the Ramayana (“Sita“), and even though I had significant disagreements with his mythographical choices, I came away with some respect. The point of writing about mythology is to pass it on to the next generation in the idiom they are familiar with. Good, clean prose and beautiful artwork are crucial towards this end, and he had them in good measure. “Jaya”, the book under review, was even better, in my opinion. In “Sita” he had stayed too close to the “official” Valmiki version of the Ramayana, and this had bothered me. In “Jaya”, he mentions many vignettes from local versions of the Mahabharata, which brings his mythography closer in philosophy to my own. I wasn’t surprised, therefore, when I found him disparaged and dismissed by conservatives, on social media. The scorn poured on him from the right concerns his command over Sanskrit, his interpretations, his insufficient knowledge of the “official” versions of the epics (see here for example, if you have an hour to waste – I couldn’t sit through much of it myself)


Budh in Hindu myth: the half-way god (courtesy:

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The Devil in the Data

April 2, 2018 § 4 Comments

fieldguideA Field Guide to Lies and Statistics (Levitin, Daniel)

Daniel Levitin has been many different things at many different times. He studied applied mathematics at MIT; enrolled at the Berklee College of Music; in his thirties he turned to cognitive psychology, studying at Stanford, University of Oregon and Berkeley and making pioneering contributions to that field. He worked as a stand up comic and contributor of jokes to other comedians. He played the piano at 4, the clarinet at 8, the saxophone at 12, and guitar at 16; by 17, he was writing songs. He was part of several bands and record labels. He executed consulting engagements for AT&T, venture capital firms, record labels, and the US Navy. As a writer, he has written articles for Billboard, Grammy, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Atlantic; and he has written three bestsellers before his biggest one: the book under review.

Yet if he had done nothing else in his whole life except write this book, it would have been a life well lived.

The Field Guide to Lies and Statistics is a vital book. I strongly recommend that it be made essential reading for anyone who wants to open a Facebook or Twitter account, or who wants to hear the news on the TV. It is a survival kit for our turbulent times, as a safeguard against fake news, false advertisements, and plain old misinformation.

Why do we need a survival kit?

It isn’t that people were smarter in the past, or that the fewer sources for information that existed were more trustworthy than the ones available today.  If you listened to only one person, and he consistently and systematically lied to you, well, you ended up believing a lot of things that weren’t true. Especially if that one person couched his pronouncements in an impregnable cocoon of infallibility, protected by religion, tradition, power, or what passed for cutting-edge science at the time. It usually helped that everyone you spoke to believed the same things as you did.

Modern scientific procedure was invented precisely to guard against such tyranny. Using scientific principles, consistent and impersonal methods were devised to test the truth of statements, using data measurements and logical deduction. These methods were applied initially to questions relating to the physical world, and later, as our confidence grew, to questions relating to human life – historical, forensic, economic,  medical, psychometric, meteorological, political…you name it. We used it to test our experts. “Because I say so” didn’t cut it any more. Just bring the data, we said. Prove it to us. We fought superstition with data, and we thought we had won.

Flash forward to today. We are now super-saturated with data. Facts, figures, conclusions, opinions and predictions drip off every screen we glance at. Data rubs off on us, goes into tiny nooks and crevices in our brain that we hardly knew existed, and sits there as bias, infecting our thoughts and words, and using them to infect others and propagate. We are a colonized species today: biases have subjugated and domesticated us. They use our brains for homes, they use our technology to ride from one place to another at the speed of light, and they use us to fight their battles against each other. Their weapon of choice in these battles? Data. Those sneaky little double agents.

It turns out that you can misrepresent data very easily. As I’ve said before in these pages, most people have a very poor instinct for real world data – what it looks like, at what rate it changes, what it will look like in the future. We’re also not very good at using techniques like inference and deduction to draw conclusions about data: we make mistakes while applying them, or we reserve our scientific skepticism only for statements we are already biased against.

And when we move out of the realm of arithmetic and into that of statistical distributions and probabilities, we’re way out of our depth. We expect certainty and simple linear relationships. Most importantly, many of us feel intimidated by numbers and readily accept anything said in complicated words by people in white lab-coats.


Fake News: Not always this easy to identify (courtesy:


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One of the Many Roads to Tradition

March 29, 2018 § 1 Comment

traditionSources of Indian Tradition (Volume 1)

Professor Ainslie T Embree was an eminent historian and Indologist at Columbia University. He was more than an acknowledged expert on modern Indian history. Uniquely for a historian, he attempted to shape history as well, by making contributions to peace efforts between India and Pakistan, and by tirelessly promoting a greater understanding between India and the USA during the Cold War. Sources of Indian Tradition, edited by him in 1958, is “widely considered the core text of the intellectual history of South Asian civilizations” (from his Wikipedia entry). The first volume of this text, covering Indian history up until 1800, is the book under review.

Embree marshals a bevy of respected academics – RN Dandekar and AL Basham among others – to write about the Brahmannical tradition (Vedas, the Upanishads, the Epics, the six schools of Indian philosophy), Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and the philosophical underpinnings of Islamic thought in India; `in addition, the book has an extended section on “The Hindu Way of Life”, which features the reputed (among Western academics) Hindu preoccupations with sex (the Kamasutra), money (the Arthashastra), Dharma (the Manusastras) and salvation (mainly the Bhagwad Gita, Dvaita and Advaita philosophy, and the Bhakti or theistic writings of medieval saints).

The section on the evolution of Islamic intellectual thoughts and attitudes towards Hinduism was very useful indeed, even eye-opening, and very relevant for an understanding of the kind of secularism that is possible in today’s India. I was already familiar with the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religious works considered, having read Radhakrishnan and Wendy Doniger, and it was quite adequate.

But the shortcomings of the book are also the same as those of Doniger’s and to an extent, Radhakrishnan’s books on Hinduism. It is the inability of a scholar to get to the soul of a religious tradition that isn’t textual. I have myself grown up as a Hindu, surrounded by millions (literally) of fairly conservative Hindus. Every one of them had strong instinctive ideas about their religion, and most of those ideas were held in common. But not a single person I knew has actually read the Kamasutra, the Manu Sastras, or the Arthasastra. A few are familiar with the Gita, probably from second-hand sources.

This, perhaps is why a Muslim, Jewish or Christian scholar would struggle to write a book on the sources of Indian tradition. If a similar book were to be written about their own faith, they’d obviously refer to the Koran, the Talmud or the Testaments, familiar texts for the common man and woman. As for Radhakrishnan, his books were on Indian Philosophy, and he makes no claim of being familiar with common tradition. He could not have –  he too was an elite scholar, probably not in touch with how 90% of his co-religionists thought, viewed the world or worshipped.

In my opinion, the best way to write about Indian tradition – and within that, specifically Hindu tradition – is to focus on folk traditions. I’d look at urban life: temples, markets, guilds, courtyards; i’d look at festivals and rituals; I’d look at traditional sports,  pastimes, vocations; if textual it must be, I’d look for the books of accounts of merchants and administrators, treatises on medicine, on cuisine, on mathematics or art, on astrology, on musical theory or dance; but mainly, I’d lead with oral traditions: the stories, the legends, the songs that women sang; yes, the epics and the Puranas (which Embree does cover), but not just the official Sanskrit versions, the hundreds of regional variations, in dozens of regional dialects. You might argue that the project would be too vast to contemplate, and to this I say: no, it is entirely possible to put together, just take a look at


Traditional Kalamkari art (credits: himanshu art institute)

Robert Redfield, the anthropologist I read recently, said this:

I make a study of Maya Indians of Yucatan. One man of the village in particular is a thoughtful fellow; he really ruminates. When I ask him questions, his mind seems to naturally arrange things into systematic wholes. I find it easy to put down what he says, just because it is so well considered and makes such inherent sense. But does he really represent the other Indians who can say so much less to me about the world they inhabit?…Shall we let the extraordinary cyclical and layered universe revealed to us as the thoughtful construct of the ancient Maya astronomer-mathematician stand for the world view of the Maya Indian villager and simple grower of maize? Shall we allow the Summa of St. Thomas and the Divine Comedy to represent the world view of the medieval European peasant?

According to Embree, the book “is meant to provide the general reader with an understanding of the intellectual and spiritual traditions which remain alive in India and Pakistan today”. This is easier to do with Islam; a straight line may be drawn there from the texts to the tradition. There is no dichotomy between the intellectual and the spiritual. It isn’t the case with Hinduism.

The Manu Sastras, the Kama Sutra, the Artha Sastra, the many Upanishads, the philosophical schools of Vaisesika, Sankhya and Nyaya: these texts represent the traditions of the common Indian man and woman no more than the writings of Immanuel Kant or Isaac Newton represent the thoughts of European farm workers. To the common Hindu, that which is spiritual is instinctive but not necessarily textual; that which is intellectual is not necessarily accessible. To insist that these texts are the source for the thoughts of a billion people who haven’t read them, and whose direct ancestors have never read them, is a tenuous claim. And yet a lot of Hindus agree on a lot of things. Surely there are other sources, other ways by which these beliefs propagated, than these hallowed but hardly-read texts.

Ask any illiterate Hindu and he’ll tell you there are many paths to enlightenment: spiritual faith, the pursuit of knowledge, a lifetime’s worth of good deeds. Indian tradition, too, has many other popular paths than the ones described in this book.

  • Notes

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