Sunday, April 25, 2004

Straight from the roots
Roopinder Singh

Sacred Trees and Indian Life
by Karuna Goswamy.
photographs by Susanne Hawkes. Aryan Books International, New Delhi. Pages 138. Rs 1,250.

BUDDHA meditated under the banyan tree. The branches of a similar tree give shelter from the elements to villagers all over India; the trees become the village square where gossip, information and ribaldry rule the day. Women swing by their branches as they celebrate Teej. The sacred and the social are as intertwined as branches of the tree.

The book is as much about trees as about the wisdom that the trees can teach us. The two authors, for the photographer here is as much the author as the one who selected erudite comments on the pictures, see the world in the trees around Chandigarh, much as a pithy comment can encompass a vast thought. Susanne Hawkes is a talented German freelance photographer who has travelled extensively in India, and Karuna Goswamy, familiar to the readers of the weekly crossword published in Windows, Saturday magazine of The Tribune, has written extensively on art and the social and cultural history of India. While the photographs are beautiful, the well-chosen quotations, take the reader to a higher level.

A banyan tree near Cholti Kheri in Fatehgarh Sahib district is so large that it looks like a forest, as its aerial roots have now become stems. Yet by common consent, it is not cut or harmed, even though its growth is at the cost of agricultural land around it. The photograph is beautiful, and the quote from Vishnu Purana that is given with it apt:

"As the wide-spreading nargodha (Sanskrit for banyan) tree is compressed in a small seed,

So at the time of dissolution, the whole universe is comprehended in Thee as its germ;

as the nargodha germinates from the seed, and becomes just a shoot and then rises into loftiness,

so the created world proceeds from Thee and expands into magnitude."

The tree also performs its time-honoured function of providing a resting place to the Jogis. The photographer uses classic devices such as positioning human figures to give perspective and, of course, it also adds colour. Indeed, trees can tower over man and the man-made. One of the outstanding images in the book is that of a cluster of bamboo trees. The reviewer now looks at the cluster with a different eye, a more refined one. Can one but agree with Kenneth Clarke’s statement: "As soon as men look with pleasure at actual details of nature, their symbolising habit of mind gives to their regards an unusual intensity, for they look at followers and trees not only as delightful objects, but as prototypes of the divine."

The naked barks of Nek Chand’s concrete creations in the Rock Garden have a starkness that contrasts with the busy background of pebbles. It is disquieting, disturbing, but they have a strange allure, they attract the eye. Yet trees need to have branches and leaves that wave in the wind. Often humans adorn these with flags and veils, symbols of their desires and aspirations. These also make a pretty picture.

The book is well-produced on thick art paper. It will evoke wide-spread interest since it celebrates the richness of the weft and warp of Indian social fabric that is woven around the sacred and the trees. Yet, to this reviewer, it is the new leaves that symbolise the fragility of life, these grow, timidly face the elements and eventually die, only to be regenerated.

We worship trees, we tie sacred threads around these, we take shelter under these, we use these as business venues, we hold social ceremonies around these, we offer these water, milk and sometimes even cowdung. Development destroys trees, these are often chopped mercilessly, and the eternal search for firewood threatens their limbs. We worshipped the trees long before ecology became fashionable.

We need to remember our roots, as a Chinese proverb says: "A tree may grow a thousand feet tall, but its leaves will return to its roots."