Monday, November 24, 2008

Ealing Interviews and Thoughts on the National Portrait Gallery

Monday, November 24, 2008
Ealing, London

I'm becoming quite adept at messing around on buses! Today I spent about four hours on them! Two getting to Ealing and about an hour and half getting back to Central London. It is the easiest thing in the world to find out how to get from Point A to Point B on the buses using London Transport's excellent website with the handy Journal Planner facility. You merely put in your starting and ending points and the instruction that you only wish to use buses (not the Tube or the River or the Docklands Light Railways--all of which fall within the network) and within seconds, you receive return instructions on how to map your route.

I also managed to review a series of first draft essays that my students had handed in to my time on the bus was also rather productive on a day which was cold and wet and overcast and would have made walking on the streets rather unpleasant.

I am rapidly learning the bus routes and the easiest ways to make connections and, in the process, I am seeing London in a unique and very inexpensive way indeed. For example, today for the first time. I actually passed by Kensington Palace. I had no idea where this was located though I had heard of it following the death of Princess Diana as it was allotted to her as part of her divorce settlement from Prince Charles. Then, suddenly, there it was...a beautiful brown mansion set in a sea of expansive green lawn. I do intend to tour it before I leave England; but my To-See List is expanding in proportion to the diminishing days that I have at my disposal to accomplish it all!

I had scheduled two interviews today with Anglo-Indian sisters Doreen Samaroo and Cheryl Whittle. Since they live in Ealing and Southall respectively, Doreen preferred me to meet with her at Ealing. I did get to Doreen's place at 11.30 am and spent almost two hours interviewing the sisters. They spoke to me so candidly and with so much emotion. It truly was a pleasure talking to them and I am grateful to all these individuals who are opening themselves to me, a total stranger, with so much warmth and ease. As is the case with the entire community, Doreen was warm and hospitable and offered me a selection of Indian snacks (samosas and pakoras) and her "homemade Anglo-Indian ribbon cake" and a comforting cup of coffee that sustained me through the long bus journey back.

Arriving in Central London, I hopped off at Trafalgar Square and headed straight to the National Portrait Gallery to continue my perusal of the portraits on display there. This time round, I started on the first floor with the 19th century and spent an hour and a half in the company of the Victorians, the men all mustachioed, the ladies in their high necks, stiff crinolines and ringlets. Victoria and Albert were, of course, well represented in portraits, sculpture and etchings, their love story providing the backdrop for some of the conventional and revolutionary relationships of the day--Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barret Browning for instance, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) and the married George Henry Lewes, etc. I found the entire backdrop of history against which the literature, music, science and technology of the era was created deeply fascinating and I read the curator's notes with the greatest interest. So many names from my own Indian heritage were there to be contemplated: Thomas Babington Macaulay (architect of English education on the Indian sub-continent), Clement Atlee and Ramsay McDonald (20th century Prince Ministers who thwarted Congress vision for Home Rule), Rudyard Kipling whose literary creativity took inspiration from the folk lore of Northern India.

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, I was profoundly absorbed by the Bloomsbury Group in whose former stomping ground, I now teach and live and work. What a wonderfully rare synergy existed among all those deeply creative people in that one era and in that one spot!There was Virginia Woolf''s portrait by her sister Vanessa Ball, Lytton Strachey's by Dora Carrington, Clive Bell by Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell by Duncan Grant. Having just returned from Cambridge where I learned about the Group's beginnings at Trinity College, I scrutinized each portrait carefully trying to recapture in my mind the marvelously close affinity they enjoyed that began when they were undergrads and continued for the rest of their adult lives. From the Apostles' Club at Cambridge to The Memoir Club at Bloomsbury (the Group met at the Bells' home at 46 Gordon Square which I must now try to find on my map and then locate), they contributed such a wealth of artistic, intellectual and literary creativity to the last century! Yet so many of them were deeply troubled. Virginia Woolf and Carrington committed suicide, E.M. Forster and Lytton Strachey struggled with their homosexuality, Vanessa Bell had a long term relationship with Duncan Grant though she married Clive Bell. What, I wonder, precluded them from finding personal happiness? Was not their professional success adequate? Clearly their wealth and privilege, class and education did not enable them to find fulfillment. These were my thoughts as I perused those works--some oils on canvas, some pastels, some pen and inks, some photographs. They were all deeply moving and kept me enthralled.

I now have the 20th century to cover and I will be done with the National Portrait Gallery--perhaps later this week I will fit it in. Then, I can turn my attention to the Victoria and Albert Museum (whose Highlights I have seen before) and the Dulwich Picture Gallery which I have never seen.

By 5.15pm, having taken care to rest my feet in-between viewings and before leaving the Gallery, I caught the bus to Bloomsbury to attend a faculty meeting at NYU. We were felicitating Prof. Hagai Segal who won the award for Best teacher of the Year for the last year. Over beer and wine and a selection of sandwiches and pastries, we congratulated him, then turned our attention to a number of issues in a lively meeting that included many varying points of view.

My dinner having been eaten at the meeting, I took the bus and was home in ten minutes. Just a quick look at my email and then the writing of this blog was all that was left before I could chat with Llew for a few minute's before retiring for the night.

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