V0020723 A dodo. Etching by J. Le Keux.There’s an article in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section, in which Dean Burnett argues that if one had a time machine and could travel back in time, killing Adolf Hitler wouldn’t be a particularly coherent thing to do. Given the piece has had 1028 comments (and counting), Burnett’s done what he set out to do: get The Guardian readers’ knickers in a twist. I haven’t gone through all 1028 comments — contrary to appearances, I do have a life — but I spotted this one, which made my heart feel all fuzzy.

My first priorities if i built a Time Machine would be
1) save the Dinosaurs
2) save the Neanderthals
3) save Jesus from being crucified by the Romans
4) teach the australian aborigines and american indians how to make explosives 1000 years before they get invaded.
5) save the Dodo
6) prevent the Vikings from landing in 1066
7) Invent Solar Panels and Wind Turbines before the industrial revolution.
Then pop back to 2014 in time for tea and buscuits, job done, planet sorted

This was posted by a user who goes by the handle Klemetr. Aside from the random capitalisation and dodgy spelling of “biscuits”, this is an utterly lovable comment. This person has seven “first” priorities and they include the dodo. There’s also the questionable point about Klemetr’s grasp of history. For example, they want to prevent the Viking landing of 1066. Now, you may observe that the Normans were the ones who showed up on British shores in 1066, and you would be correct. The Vikings raided Britain back in the 9th century, but who is to say a boatload of helmetted Scandinavians didn’t land up somewhere in 1066? If I could, I would give Klemetr a toffee and a gold star for their effort.

On a completely unrelated note, I finally connected the dots between two bits of art that Mumbai has inspired. Back in 1872, there was an artist in Bombay who went by the name of John Griffiths. He was an artist and Rudyard Kipling’s godfather. Griffiths came to India around 1865 and stayed in Bombay for about 10 years, working on a variety of projects including Victoria Terminus (now known as CST) and High Court. He also painted and sketched for his own pleasure. One of those personal works is titled “Woman holding a fish” and it is, somewhat literally, of a woman holding a fish. She’s clearly a Maharashtrian fisherwoman and she’s holding a rather large fish on her head.

I’m not sure if this watercolour of Griffith’s is a famous image, but it’s in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection and I have seen it before. But a couple of weeks ago I saw it on a postcard and I had an epiphany. There’s a graffiti in Bandra that’s an ode to Griffith’s painting.

No doubt this is actually more of statement of ignorance than an epiphany. I’m sure pretty much everyone who knows anything about that period of art and/or Mumbai spotted the resemblances between the two ages ago, but the penny only just dropped in my head.

I’d taken a photo of the graffiti when it was fresh and new, (seven? eight?) years ago, but I think I lost it when my old computer crashed. She’s still an eye-catcher, but back then, she was striking. She wore a pink sari (not worn in the Maharashtrian style that you can see in Griffith’s painting) and there was such purpose in her frozen stride. On her head, that bejewelled, utterly unrealistic fish beamed. It’s as though they were a team.

The graffiti isn’t a copy of Griffith’s painting by any stretch of the imagination, but she does come across as an updated version. They’re both takes on the exotic appeal of Mumbai. Griffith’s was of his time and was informed by his generation’s desire to create a record, subjective as it may be. The graffiti is equally informed by its context — the 21st century aesthetics of cool, the rise of kitsch and the desire for an India that was getting international attention after many decades wanting to find ways of reclaiming the exotica that was traditionally heaped upon India in a way that isn’t limiting as stereotypes tend to be.

As you can tell from my more recent photo of the graffiti, she’s disappearing rather rapidly. While Griffith’s watercolour is preserved carefully for future reference and exhibition, the graffiti version of a woman holding a fish is getting grubby and being disfigured. Soon it’ll disappear entirely. Some will remember there was a really pretty graffiti on that wall. Maybe that wall will disappear too and that building will give way to a newer construction.

There are so many stories that could be placed upon this graffiti version of a woman holding a fish. The word “interpretation” surfaces mostly in conversations about art and it’s misused to be a variation of the practice of making things up as one goes along. But this bit of wall, a piece of public art if you will, gives you an idea at how many ways the everyday can be interpreted too. Because all “interpretation” is, is creating a cat’s cradle of story lines for what you see. You could take the graffiti woman with a fish on her head as a metaphor for Bandra’s ‘hipster’ credentials, which are being lost at about the same pace as the details of this beautiful bit of wall art. If the graffiti and Griffith’s painting were in a work of fiction, we’d curl our lips in a sneer and observe how the colonial power’s exotic construct is preserved while the indigenous attempts at picturing oneself are constantly being revised.

Prosaically speaking, the graffiti of a woman with a fish has been obscured by some really crude repair work, but at least she’s keeping her head above the ugliness below her and the fish is still amused.



8 thoughts on “Dodos and Woman Holding a Fish

    • I don’t know for certain that it was intended as a reference, but if it’s a coincidence, that’s freaky. All I remember about the Bandra graffiti is that the Wall Project was involved. I think you’re right, this particular one was by a French artist.

  1. re 1066 – Normans is short for Northmen!! they were descended from the Vikings, so maybe Dodo-saver is cleverer than we think!!

  2. Hello Anon, I really liked the graffiti pic (girl with ornamental fish on her head). May I use it on my personal profile? Do let me know. Thanks. Shweta

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