ARS LONGA, VITA BREVISTweet
No, regardless of what my Punjabi Twitter-happy friends think, this does not translate into a joke on the lines of "the longer the arse, the more vital is brevity of other things" (not that I’d put it past some ancient Greek college student actually). It's a part of a longer Greek saying by Hippocrates that translates into 'life is short, the art (craft/skill) long, opportunity fleeting, experiment treacherous and the judgment difficult'. This particular part of the quotation roughly is considered to translate to 'art lasts forever, but artists die and are forgotten'.
And how true this is in India! After all, if the civilization of a country is seen through its art, we've had outstanding examples of art for centuries. If Europe has a plethora of churches, opera, symphonies and ballet to show for its 2000 years of civilization, India has stunning art treasures lying abegging (try stepping into the National Museum in Delhi and you’ll know what I mean) that have been made by unknown artisans for 30,000. For every Sistine Chapel and Versailles, we've got a Falaknuma Palace and a Khajurao or Konark temple. The problem is, we have such a problem of plenty that we need foreigners to discover our treasures for us.
So, our sari traditions are being preserved by foreigners. It's taken Indians raised in the west to launch FabIndia and Anokhi, which help preserve our beautiful traditions. Our archeologically exquisite palaces need the Neemrana folks to turn them into Heritage hotels. Sotheby's and Christies tells us which artists are worth investing in, the British Council helps us put up exhibitions on Kalighat paintings and heck, our favorite national treasure, the Kohinoor diamond, is lying safely in the Tower of London.
As we look with new eyes at items that we've been told are worthy of attention in the western world, we remain surrounded by art on a daily basis that we don't pay the slightest attention to. Our beautiful art that we enjoy in our daily lives have got a lot to do with cheap labour, true. But it's also about the effort people put into art in this country. So, we'll decorate our houses everyday with rangolis that get destroyed every day and we'll purposely make them in more and more intricate designs and perishable materials like flour, flowers, colored powder etc., so that we can make even prettier designs the next day.
Our house decorations include wood and brass carvings that would cost the earth in developed countries thanks to the sheer amount of work involved. And the effort we make on ourselves! Unlike the west, where walking down the street involves looking at a steady stream of black and grey, in India, our clothes are phenomenal. We wear sarees, suits, trousers, half sarees, lehngas, dresses, long skirts, skirts, pajama kurta's, sherwanis, shawls, Nehru jackets and hijabs with equal élan and attention to detail.
And let's just discuss saris for a minute, shall we? Each saree is a devil to wear with its seven and nine yards. Each community in India (and there are a lot of them) wear their sarees in different styles and with different accessories. And each saree is a work of art, and some of them can take up to a few years to weave. In fact, as of last week, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's Inter-Governmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Heritage has unanimously declared the craft of making Jamdani saris an "Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity" (yes, western approval strikes again!).
Today, just stop for a minute and look around you. There's art all around you and I'm not sure who helped create it for you. But, for a brief minute, appreciate the forgotten artist who’s added this moment of color to your life.