Monday, October 12, 2009


Bangalore, the IT City of India was once the ‘Garden City’ of yester years. Many centuries ago, King Veera Ballala called it a ‘Village of Boiled Beans’ (Bengal-uru) to honour the generosity of an old woman who fed the hungry king with boiled beans, when he was traveling incognito. Today Bangalore is the home of writers of different styles and categories. Many of them have made their mark in the world of literature.

‘INKLINKS’ the latest group of women writers who have declared their love for pen and ink, are a motley group of nine women from different professional backgrounds –teachers, artists, journalists, clinical therapists, counselors and doctors. They have bonded in a very special way to write short stories mostly on contemporary issues, which make the readers want to laugh, cry, fume, fret or take up cudgels against the ills of society.
This is a closely knit group where members encourage, criticize and share useful information with each other. Most of them have had their short stories published in news papers, magazines and on the Net. Some are published authors. They are an ambitious lot, and their first anthology of short stories ‘BHELPURI’ is to be released on the 24th of October at the British Council Library.
Interacting with them is an exciting experience.


Most people who visit Cologne head for the Cologne Cathedral, which is one of the most important works of Gothic architecture in Europe. But the basilica of St. Ursula which is just a few streets away does not attract much attention. The revenues of this church go solely to the Abbess of the Ursuline Order and six other canonesses.

The story of Ursula a British princess is a sad one. She lived in the 5th century A.D. and was the daughter of King Donaut of Dummonia in south west England. Much against her wishes, she was betrothed to Governor Conan Meriodoc of Brittany. Ursula begged her father for a three-month reprieve, with the excuse that she wanted to go to Rome to be baptized.

Ursula sailed with 11 virgins for company. But a storm drove the vessel down to Cologne instead. Here this group of young women was martyred by the Huns in 453 A.D. Ursula was shot with an arrow. But the rest of the virgins were beheaded.

As time went by, a legend grew around Ursula and her band of virgins. She had an assistant called Undecimilla. Someone mistook this to be Undecim Millia meaning 11,000. And so the story spread that Ursula was accompanied by 11,000 virgins. But in 1969, Pope Paul VI called the story a figment of imagination, and removed Ursula from the canon of saints.

The Feast of Ursula is celebrated on the 21st of October. The Basilica dedicated to her is built on an ancient Roman cemetery. In the 16th century, the Romans slaughtered thousands of Christians not sparing even little children.

Attached to the Basilica is a chapel called the Golden Krammer, (Golden Chamber) which was built in the 17th century. This is a weird place of worship and guaranteed to give one goose pimples when one steps into the gloomy interior. Three walls of the chapel are lined by bones of different sizes and shapes – ribs, shoulder blades, femurs and other bones. They are artistically fixed into the walls in whorls, crosses, zigzag and even in the shape of Latin alphabets. Bones of very small children are also incorporated into this work of art. Sculptures of heads and torsos are exhibited in glass cases. Some skulls are encased in silver filigree. Others are covered with caps of gold and velvet. The skulls of the sculptures open up on top like lids, to reveal smaller skulls inside. The torsos are hollow like windows with grills, revealing skulls inside the abdomens.

Ursula’s statue shows her holding an arrow in one hand, (the weapon that killed her) and a pilgrim’s staff surmounted by a white banner with a red cross – the Christian standard of victory. A crown on her head shows that she is a princess. Many pilgrims come here believing that if they touch the bones of these martyrs, miracles would take place in their own lives. The pilgrims always carried back relics that were sold in the chapel.

There is no artificial cooling here. The temperature remains at a constant
18 degrees centigrade. Two stained glass windows on the outer wall let in some light.

There are large concrete sarcophagi both inside and outside the chapel containing millions of bones recovered from the cemetery, over which the church was built. It is said that during World War II, the chapel was protected by a slab of concrete. Though the rest of the Basilica was bombed, the chapel remained untouched.

Ursula is the patron saint of young girls because she and her virgins were young women when they were martyred. The Order of the Ursulines was established in 1535, by a woman called Angela Merci. This Order is devoted to the education of young girls.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


The Coventry Cathedral in England rose like a phoenix from the ruins of the bombed out St. Michael’s Church. In 1940, the Luftwaffe in its ‘Operation Moonlight Sonata,’ reduced to rubble the City of Coventry. The Germans reckoned without the faith and resilience of the people, who on the very next day decided that they would rebuild the Cathedral. Though it took fifteen years for this to happen, the Cathedral today stands proudly as a magnificent modern ‘theatre of worship.’

Beside it stand the ruins of the old church, open to the skies and still considered consecrated ground. Its tower and spire 295 feet high, loom into the skies. The Altar of Reconciliation holds pride of place, but there are many other plaques engraved on the walls. The words “Father Forgive” inscribed on the partially burnt out cross, spell the ethos of the Christian Church.

Most people fail to notice the remnants of very old buildings at the entrance to the Visitors’ Centre. These are the ruins of the earliest church in Coventry, which was dedicated to St. Mary. It was founded as a Benedictine Nunnery by Leofric, Earl of Mercia and his wife Godiva in 1043. With the dissolution of monasteries in 1539, the building fell into decay.

Most of us remember Lady Godiva because of the legend associated with her name. Some women strip for a living; some do it for a lark. Some do it for publicity, but the lovely lady of Coventry did it for a worthy cause. In the 11th century, her husband Leofric levied crippling taxes on the people of Coventry. This saintly woman pleaded with her husband to remit his orders. He agreed to do it on one condition – that she ride naked through the streets of Coventry. A decree was sent out to the people to stay indoors during this time, and bolt their windows and doors. But a tailor who was later called ‘Peeping Tom’ couldn’t contain his curiosity. He drilled a hole in his door to catch a glimpse of the naked lady, but was immediately struck blind.
One wonders why a godly man like Leofric wanted to humiliate his wife. Was it a form of sexual sadism? Or did he want to test whether she was genuinely concerned about her subjects? Her readiness to take up the challenge must have convinced him of her sincerity, and the taxes were promptly withdrawn.
The people of Coventry did not forget the goodness of Godiva. She has been immortalized in black marble. Her naked statue astride a horse, covered only by her cascading hair, stands under a canopy at the Cathedral’s Lane Shopping Centre.
Godiva lived between 997 – 1067 A.D. She was a widow when Leofric married her. Both of them were benefactors of religious houses. After Leofric’s death she was the only woman in England with such major land holdings.

A commemoration of Godiva’s legendary ride was instituted on May 31st 1678, and continued till 1960. But in 1980 after a gap of twenty years, a Coventry resident called Pru Porretta took on the role of present day Godiva. She leads a procession through town on Godiva’s birthday, which culminates in a celebration at the Cathedral ruins. Her aim is to bring various ethnic, cultural and religious communities together, through music, dance and story telling. Her band of helpers, are known as the Godiva Sisters.

Pru breathes the spirit of Godiva. She works with schools and communities, and brings the story of Godiva to life. Her conducted tours through the city are interesting and informative. And for those who would like to explore the darker side of Coventry, she conducts ghost tours too.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Katherine von Bora – Mistress Of The Black Cloister


A visit to Wittenberg was a pilgrimage long overdue. The town has been immortalized by Martin Luther, the monk who rebelled against the Catholic Church in the 16th century, for selling indulgences to gullible people, as a sacrament of penance. His act of nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in Germany.

The entire town pays tribute to its hero through its churches, statues, Theological colleges and various other landmarks. But what struck me when I entered the Luther House where he lived and worked for many years, was the imposing sculpture of Katherine von Bora, a woman who defied tradition and shocked the Christian world of the 16th century with her daring-do. Few applauded her courage. Most thought she was a schemer. Her enemies were many, and friends just a handful. But she proved herself a worthy mistress of the Black Cloister, the house given to Martin Luther by the Elector John, as his permanent residence.

Katherine lost her mother at an early age. Her father, who married again, abdicated his parental responsibilities and admitted her into a Benedictine Convent in Brehna as a boarder. Later, at the age of ten, she was inducted into the convent at Nimbschen for her vocation as a nun. She received a good education, but physical labour and limited quantities of food were part of convent discipline. The child in her must have rebelled against such a difficult and Spartan lifestyle. It was also a cloistered existence with hardly any scope for mingling with the public.

By then, Martin Luther’s Reformation was gaining ground. Based on his deep study of the Bible, he refuted many of the restrictions of the Catholic Church. He realized that sexuality was God’s gift to mankind and was an inseparable part of human nature. Therefore priests should be allowed to marry if they so desired.

Luther’s revolutionary statements made their way through the hitherto impenetrable portals of Katherine’s convent. It incited Katherine and eight other fugitive nuns to flee the convent. They hid themselves in the wagon of a wholesaler Leonard Kopp, who brought goods regularly to the institution. Hidden behind his large fish barrels, they fled to Wittenberg, hoping that the great reformer would take care of their future. They were completely without means or plans, but with a ring leader like Katherine, they were sure that things wouldn’t go wrong.

Luther felt responsible for their resettlement. Some were given in marriage to his friends. Others went back to their parental homes. But Katherine remained, as no one would take her for a wife. She lived as a domestic help in the house of Lucas Cranach the painter.

Luther had no intention of marrying Katherine. He thought she was proud and arrogant. But in the end, because of her growing restlessness and lack of other suitors, he was persuaded to take her as his wife. Critics hollered that Martin had started the Reformation merely to satisfy his sexual needs. Katherine the runaway nun had married her pimp Luther after living in sin for over a year, they said. They predicted that the anti-Christ would be born from the union of a sex-starved nun and a degenerate monk. But these rumours were disproved when the couple had six normal children.

There was nothing passionate about their union. He was forty one and she was twenty six years old. Katherine craved for respectability through marriage to a famous man. The thought of presiding over his home excited her. Practical and down to earth, her management skills overrode Luther’s other-worldliness. His monetary status couldn’t put bread on the table for his family. But when Katherine took over, she initiated many money making schemes such as rearing domestic animals for food and milk, planting kitchen gardens for vegetable and fruit, and providing meals for students of theology.

Luther House is now a museum where one can visit the rooms where he worked and lived. His extensive library of books and manuscripts, photographs, paintings and personal belongings are on all display here.

Katherine’s yearning to possess land and property became an obsession. Though there was much criticism, she had the patronage of the Elector. Most of her economic endeavours were done without Luther’s knowledge. Theirs was not an intellectual partnership, and she had no influence whatsoever over his sermons and writings. But Luther did admire her skills in money management, and always took her side against adverse criticism.
“In domestic duties I defer to Kate,” he said, “Otherwise I am led by the Holy Spirit.”

Katherine was ugly with a long nose and stubborn chin, but she had intelligence and personality. Some biographers describe her as a “quick witted Saxon with a ready tongue.”

After Luther’s death, Katherine lived on at the Black Cloister with her children. But in 1546, when Saxony was in a state of war, she fled to Madgeburg for a while. She lost a lot of her money and property. She returned to Wittenberg in 1548, until the Black Plague threatened the area. Now she fled to Torgau with her family. But her carriage met with an accident, and she suffered injuries. She also suffered a chill from which she never recovered. She died on December 20th, 1552, and was buried at the Church of St. Mary in Torgau.

The marriage of the runaway nun and the rebel monk created history and brought about Luther’s break with monasticism and clericalism. Katherine provided him with the means and the privacy to pursue his writing, teaching and preaching activities.

Katherine loved being wealthy and in total control of her fiefdom the Black Cloister. She was a woman who could shake off animosity and criticism with a decisive shrug of her broad shoulders.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


The drive from Stockholm to Dalarna County in the north west of Sweden is about three hundred kms. It winds through miles and miles of conifer forests interspersed with fields of wheat and rye. Here and there among the greenery are clusters of red roofed cottages that paint a pretty picture against the dark green shades of the forest. The roofs have low maintenance as the red paint comes from copper mining debris in the region, mixed with arsenic and other chemicals. It ensures the durability of the wooden constructions and keeps them termite free.

My destination is Leksand on the banks of the Siljan Lake. Three hundred million years ago a meteor fell over Dalarna, and this large lake was born. On its banks are many picturesque villages. Leksand is one of them. The houses here are surrounded by sprawling lawns. Terraces of multicolored flowers and lush green meadows reach down to the water’s edge.

Hildasholm, a 14-roomed mansion overlooking the lake has a very romantic setting. The Nature Park surrounding this mansion has been artistically landscaped into several small colourful gardens, amidst patches of untamed jungle. They are patterned after English gardens, and many of the plants and sculptures have also been imported from England. Wandering through the yellow peacock garden, the evergreen junipers, and the green arch temple makes one feel like Alice in Wonderland. There is a medicinal garden in memory of the famous Swedish doctor and author Axel Munthe. The fountain garden with its fountain surrounded by granite pillars which are topped with iron urns, was opened by Queen Victoria of Sweden in 1924.

This ornamental landscape is the untiring work of Hilda Munthe the second wife of Axel Munthe, who lived in the early 20th century. He was a great nature lover and fell in love with the beauty of Leksand. He built the Hildasholm Mansion earlier known as ‘Stone Court,’ as a wedding present for his young wife Hilda Pennington Mellor. She toiled for ten years to turn this wild park around the mansion into a thing of beauty.

Yet Munthe never lived here. He resided permanently on the Isle of Capri, in his Villa St. Michael, attending to his patients or traveling around Europe on his various errands of mercy. When not preoccupied with his profession, he was in the company of the chronically ill Princess Victoria of Sweden, both as her physician and close friend. She always spent the long winter months in Capri.

Though the Princess was married to Crown Prince Gustav, she found him uncultured and boring. Munthe was her soul mate. She shared his love of Arts, Music and Photography. People gossiped but there was nothing much they could do. The Princess and Munthe traveled together to Venice. The duo even teamed up in concert, she playing the piano and his rich tenor ringing out in song. Though he was pursued by rich and famous women, Munthe was obsessed with the princess. “You are the woman of my heart,” he said.
This relationship was probably the cause of his divorce from his first wife.

But as he aged, he realized the futility of this liaison. They could never marry. He longed for a wife and family. So in 1910, he chose a bride from the English aristocracy, the young Hilda Pennington Mellor. Though she bore him two sons, she hated living in Capri because of his relationship with the Princess. She was jealous not only of Victoria but suspicious of all the other women who fawned over him. They separated in 1919, and Hilda left Capri for good.

Ironically, Munthe’s marriage brought a chill into his relationship with the Princess. Her visits to Capri became less frequent. Even so, when she was crowned queen, she appointed Munthe as her personal physician. They eventually fell out with each other over political differences. But he was by her side when she died in 1930.
Axel Munthe returned to Sweden only when he was old and almost blind. He dedicated his book ‘The Story of St. Michael” to the Princess.

Hilda spent her summers at Hildasholm with her two sons, opening her soul to Nature and allowing the beauty and tranquility of her gardens to bring her peace. If only those gardens could speak, they would tell the story of a sad and neglected wife, who watered the flower beds with her tears as she whispered, ‘With all thy faults I love thee still.’
She died in 1967.

Today Hildasholm and its gardens are owned by the Stifteson Foundation run by the Leksand Church and the Municipality. It was donated to the county by her son Malcolm in 1980.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


Not very far from the Champs Elysees in Paris, is the Cemetery de Passy. It sits in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, well concealed from the world by thick branches of chestnut trees. No ordinary tourist would like to venture into this overcrowded necropolis. Its confusion of bizarre mausoleums with doors and candelabras is something of a nightmare to negotiate. It was a small area in 1820, But by 1874, it became the final resting place of the rich and the famous. Here in the silent company of Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Debussy and many fellow painters and artists like Manet, lies Berthe Morisot, the artist whom France forgot.
Born on January 14th, 1841 at Bourges, Cher, Berthe was inclined towards painting since her childhood. Perhaps she had inherited these genes from her grand uncle the famous Rococo painter Fragonard. Her parents supported her in her desire to pursue painting, and arranged for painting lessons. She began to copy the old Masters perfectly. Her skills were recognized by the greater artist Corot, under whom she studied from 1860 – 1862. He encouraged her to attend the Auvers-sur-Oise, to learn the technique of Plein Air painting.
Berthe was the first female Impressionist painter. She knew how to capture the effect of light falling on objects. The interplay of light and shadow were beautifully reproduced in her paintings. She drew landscapes directly from Nature and was not studio-bound. In 1864, at the age of 23, she became the youngest painter to exhibit her landscapes at the Salon de Paris. In the next ten years, she exhibited in six salons.

Berthe’s historic meeting with the painter Eduard Manet in 1868 at the Louvre distracted her to some extent. She became his model for six long years, during which time he painted her portrait fifteen times and rose to fame. But the spotlight shifted away from Berthe’s talents and achievements. Through her paintings she had dared to trespass into a man’s domain. This was a blatant breach of convention, and the best way to put her in place was to sideline her.

Berthe became known more for her association with Manet than for her own skills. His portraits of her were an open testimony of his affection for his model. Rumours were rife about her ‘affair’ with this married artist.

But Berthe’s proximity to this great man made her aware of the flaws in his character.Fame was his passion. She wrote to her sister, “I will obtain my independence by persevering and showing that I mean to be free.”
She developed her own distinctive artistic style. Manet could not but approve of it. He even incorporated into his work certain aspects of her technique. However his chauvinism surfaced when he was asked to transport one of her paintings to the Salon. He took the liberty of making corrections in her work, which annoyed her no end.

Berthe married Eduard’s elder brother Eugene. They had a daughter named Julia. Her home in Paris was open to other Impressionists like Degas, Monet, Renoir, Pissaro and Mellarme.

In 1874, she joined the group of ‘rejected’ artists, whose work had been rejected by the Salon. The jury had been overcritical of their paintings. Berthe showed solidarity with them by joining their first exhibition. Her best know painting ‘Cradle’ (a mother looking at her child) was much appreciated. Between 1874 and 1886 Berthe exhibited at all Impressionist shows. Some of her pictures fetched more money than those of Manet or Renoir.

After marriage, she avoided painting street scenes and nudes but used her family and friends as models. She portrayed the serenity and intimacy of family life, garden scenes and nature.

Berthe was widowed in 1892. She outlived her husband by three years and died of a bout of Influenza on 2nd March 1895. She was buried in the Cemetery de Passy. Her Impressionist friends arranged for a grand Memorial service. Then her own country forgot her. Her art was not given due recognition only because she was a woman. Gender discrimination was ingrained in the social fabric of her time, even in the world of Art.

But she has been immortalized by her daughter Julia, in her book “Growing up with the Impressionists – The Diary of Julie Manet”(1987)

Thursday, January 8, 2009


The drive through the northern part of Bavaria, through unspoiled natural woodlands and narrow winding roads, past half-timbered houses and ruined castles, was refreshing. Our destination was Nuremberg, the second largest city in Bavaria. Much of it has been rebuilt after the destruction of war. From the 1st to the 6th century, it was an Imperial City where German kings resided, and held their Imperial Diets. The castle still looms over the city from the north bank of the River Pegnitz, and at a height of 351 metres.

But Nuremberg was made notorious by Hitler’s National Socialist Party activities. His unfinished Congress Hall is now the Documentation Centre, which chronicles the affairs of the Nationalist Socialist Party, and details Hitler’s inhuman and bloody regime. Here one reads the story of Leini Riefenstahl, who helped propagate the ‘Fuhrer myth’ through her propaganda film “Triumph of the Will.” It was later condemned as ‘masterly deceptive.’

Leini Riefenstahl was a German actress, dancer, and film maker. A born artist with a distinctly romantic inclination, her dance movements were said to express the ‘liberation of the soul.’ Born in a rich family in 1902, she was well educated and well informed about Modern Art forms. She was also a good skier. Her film “Blue Light” was a picture of rare beauty and depth. Blue Light was the reflection of the full moon on the houses built on mountain slopes. The film was one of exceptional beauty but it also stirred up confusing emotions.

This innovator of moving pictures met Hitler in 1932 and was hopelessly smitten, after hearing his speech at the National Socialist Party meeting in Berlin. Her infatuation soon turned into an obsession. Hitler capitalized on it. In 1933, after he was elected Chancellor, Leini was commissioned to film the annual NSDAP Conference at Nuremberg. She was given total organizational control, and wielded her clout effectively.

The Rally was literally a political circus, stage managed to perfection with giant size stage structures. The Zeppelin Field designed by Albert Speer, was converted into a fort like structure with ramparts and flag towers. The main grand stand from where Hitler made his speeches was modeled on the Pergamon Altar. The choreographed crowded scenes (supposed to hold half a million NSDAP members and 250,000 guests) had been well rehearsed. Her film ‘Triumph of the Will’ reflected her total admiration for Hitler.
“To me Hitler is the greatest man who has ever lived. He is so faultless, so simple yet so filled with manly power. He is beautiful, he is wise. Radiance streams from him.”

Rene Clair the film critic thought that Hitler’s larger than life image was due to “the suggestive power of Leini’s films.” Writer Lutz Kinkel was even more critical
“This picture was a get up…A beautiful sham with which the Nazis and their helper Riefenstahl tried to delude the public under conditions where a unity never existed.”

A second film “Olympia” followed in 1938, to extol the virtues of Fascism.

Leini’s absolute belief in Hitler and the ideology of the Third Reich enabled her to create a mirage of peace and harmony of the most brutal and barbaric regime in History. When she was arrested after the war, she claimed reprieve on the basis of her naiveté. She swore she was never a member of the Party.

Discredited and ostracized for her collaboration with the Nazis, her career as a film maker was in ruins. But this spunky lady retrieved some credibility in 1960, through her film on the African Nuba Tribals. At the age of 80, she learnt Sea diving, and her last assignment was an under water film.

Leini died on September 8th, 2003 at the ripe old age of 101. Her obsession with Hitler clouded her powers of reasoning. It made her pursue ‘beauty at the expense of reality’ and so ruined her own reputation.