Culture: 288 posts

Art, travel, books, history

Empress Nur Jahan by Ruby Lal : Power and Roses

One doesn’t often see empresses portrayed loading a gun, but among the many representations of Nur Jahan, the 17th century Mughal sovereign, the most famous shows her doing just that. She’s standing against a leafy landscape, dressed in a man’s turban, orange trousers and a transparent silk coat. The musket is long and unwieldy, but she handles it with ease. Her posture is confident, bold and self-assured. When the painting was presented to Nur Jahan’s husband, the emperor Jahangir, he proclaimed it perfect and named the court painter Abul-Hasan, Nadir uz-Zaman, the Wonder of the Age. But as the historian Ruby Lal notes in her book, Empress : The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan, the true wonder was the subject of the painting herself.

Nur Jahan (1577-1645) was born Mihr un-Nissa, a daughter of Persian nobles who left the repressive conditions of Safavid Iran for the greater freedom–and wealth–of Mughal India. She became Nur Jahan, the Light of the World, when she married Jahangir in 1611. She was an unconventional imperial spouse, because she was not only past the nubile age–she was 34 at the time of their betrothal, but also a widow and a mother. Records don’t tell us exactly how the meeting between Mihr and Jahangir happened. What we know for sure is how much the emperor esteemed his wife, describing her bravery, archery and shooting skills, her wisdom, and her generosity at length in his journal, Jahangirnama.

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Culinary and Aromatic Journey Across the Islamic World

“My most vivid scent from Beirut was that of gardenias. Our neighbor’s garden was full of gardenia trees and when they flowered, the smell was so heady and divine that I would stay outside just to enjoy it,” recalls Lebanese-born Anissa Helou. As a journalist, chef and prolific cookbook author, she has traveled the world collecting recipes and learning how different nationalities prepare their food. Yet when I ask her for a favorite scent memory, it’s the perfume of Lebanese gardenias that she describes.

I was inspired to reach out to Helou after I spent a few weeks in a haze of coriander, rosewater and saffron, thanks to her magnum opus, Feast: Food of the Islamic World. Published this spring after many years of extensive research, it’s a fascinating compendium of recipes from countries united by their Islamic heritage. As I describe in my article for FT Magazine, A Cultural And Aromatic Journey Across the Islamic World, another common link among the diverse cuisines Helou describes is their attention to aromatics.

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The Memory of a Mulberry Tree

Not long ago I posted a photo of mulberries to my Facebook page and by the end of the day I had scores of comments and emails filled with the mulberry-related reminiscences. I was surprised how many people had a mulberry tree as part of their childhood. Reading the comments, I too tasted the mulberries of Esfahan and Israel, climbed the tall trees in Romania and Texas and made jam in California. In sharing stories, we made our own Silk Road spanning the mulberry memories and the globe. It also turned out be quite a cosmopolitan tree with the Eastern roots. It’s called tuta in Aramaic, tut in Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and Hebrew, duda in Romanian. In Ukrainian, it’s either called tut or shelkovytsa, the silk tree berry.

In my part of Ukraine mulberry trees are ubiquitous. They’re a reminder of the old history: of the manor estates of the Poltavan gentry and of the silk farms established as part of the Five Year plans by the Soviet government. Both the gentry and the five year plans are long gone. The mulberries remain. The berries cover the sidewalks in indelible ink stains and scent of fermented, overripe fruit hangs in the summer haze.

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Mary Beard on How We Look at Art

If ancient Greeks were transported to the rural Ukraine of the 21st century, they would have been surprised to see elements of their designs used with a liberal hand. A faux Greek portico attached to a housing unit meant “a cultural institution” to Soviet planners. Many mini-Parthenons dot the bucolic landscapes, the so-called Houses of Culture that once disseminated the light of the Marxist credo and hosted weekly village dances and now shelter shops and offices, capitalist style. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 rejected much about the old order–the language, the traditions, the customs, the family allegiances, but such was the power of classical art that the Soviet style became defined by it. Culture had to come with Doric columns in tow.

Mary Beard’s book Civilisations: How Do We Look/The Eye of Faith (public library) is about the way we look at art and the notions we have about it. A renowned historian of the ancient world looks at the way people throughout history thought of art and expressed their ideas of themselves by both creating it and interacting with it. The Soviet example is a good illustration for Beard’s idea of art as used to inscribe certain values and principles into the landscape and into daily life.

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Leonard Foujita : The Japanese Star of 1920s Paris

In the summer of 1913, an artist arrived in Paris. He was 27 and discovering the city of lights had been his obsession since he was a child in Meiji-era Japan. Foujita Tsuguharu was from a well-off family, the son of a general in Japan’s imperial army and a graduate of the prestigious School of Fine Arts in Tokyo, but he arrived in the French capital as a complete unknown. His goal was to learn, paint and be inspired by the city.

He moved into a studio in Montparnasse and soon met artists like Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine, Fernand Léger, and Pablo Picasso. He worked as a copyist at the Louvre, took dance lessons from Isadora Duncan and staged exhibitions with other painters. In Japanese, Foujita meant “a wisteria field,” but in the Montparnasse circle he soon became known as Fou-Fou, Mad to the power of two. Foujita didn’t mind. He welcomed the notoriety by cultivating a flamboyant image complete with a bowl cut, earrings and a lampshade as a headdress. He added Léonard to his name for a French inflection and as a tribute to Leonardo da Vinci. In the Paris of the Roaring Twenties, he was a star and a natural, more successful than either Picasso or Matisse.

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  • Victoria in Open Doors Day at the Osmotheque: No worries! I just don’t want to miss your comments. 🙂 Another perfume that smells like violet candy is Guerlain Meteorites. August 16, 2018 at 6:19am

  • Nancy Chan in Open Doors Day at the Osmotheque: My apologies Victoria. Thanks for the perfume recommendation, I will try it.😃 August 16, 2018 at 5:15am

  • Victoria in Open Doors Day at the Osmotheque: Violetta di Parma by Borsari is close, I think. P.S. When you comment, please don’t put a broken link in the website field, otherwise your comments are blocked by the… August 16, 2018 at 4:09am

  • Nancy Chan in Open Doors Day at the Osmotheque: The only Violet candy I know the smell of is Swizzel’s Parma Violets. These chalky lilac coloured sweets are beautifully perfumed, but I am struggling in find a perfume close… August 16, 2018 at 3:59am

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