Tuesday, 21 August 2012

The Inconsequent Wild Roses

The complete photo album is here: Wild Roses

Henri Rousseau, the French painter best known for his paintings depicting elaborate jungle scenes and exotic landscapes, had never visited a jungle. In fact, he never left France. His inspiration came from illustrated books of famous expeditions, the botanical gardens of Paris and stuffed wild animals in the museums. Also perhaps, a desire to escape the banality of modern existence. In his living years he was ridiculed because his jungle paintings were 'mere' fantasies without any regard to geography or even a sense of proportion; his 'exotic' imaginings. Even though he steadfastly described himself as 'one of France's best realist painter'. These contradictory reactions to his art were precisely the reasons why he became famous after his death. His paintings are beautiful for not only what they depict but also for what the particular manner of depiction evokes.

In India the jungle of our mythologies and bedtime stories is more real than the one that is a short train ride away. The peacock after pecking at the open garbage dump, may settle for the night on the Neem tree in our suburban neighbourhoods but the one that dances underneath that flowering tree with parrots and bulbuls next to a stream overflowing with lotuses is more alive to our senses. We have no desire to see because we know how it feels. At times it seems even our perceptions are preordained.

The first word that comes to mind when confronted with the English landscape is agreeable, even polite. However, some miles down, one often comes upon a dramatic dialogue between the lone tree and the raging winds. For a few moments even the sheep look on in suspended animation. The woods here have been called tame*. There are no tigers coughing at twilight, no cobras coiling in the shade of the banyan. But to a child's 'alluring eye' as Louis MacNeice writes, they are 'a kingdom free from time and sky'. Only to appear tame again as the child grows up– each moored to a village with its 'inconsequent wild roses'.

In all the instances mentioned above to my mind's eye the most alluring is the moment when the wild rose becomes 'inconsequent'. How and when and by what alchemy does this transformation transpire? What catalyst, what reagent is at work here? And in the end result if something is gained, then what is lost?

Henri Rousseau's jungle paintings are here.

*Woods by Louis MacNeice

My father who found the English landscape tame
Had hardly in his life walked in a wood,
Too old when first he met one; Malory's knights,
Keats's nymphs or the Midsummer Night's Dream
Could never arras the room, where he spelled out True and Good
With their interleaving of half-truths and not-quites.

While for me from the age of ten the socketed wooden gate
Into a Dorset planting, into a dark
But gentle ambush, was an alluring eye;
Within was a kingdom free from time and sky,
Caterpillar webs on the forehead, danger under the feet,
And the mind adrift in a floating and rustling ark

Packed with birds and ghosts, two of every race,
Trills of love from the picture-book---Oh might I never land
But here, grown six foot tall, find me also a love
Also out of the picture-book; whose hand
Would be soft as the webs of the wood and on her face
The wood-pigeon's voice would shaft a chrism from above.

So in a grassy ride a rain-filled hoof-mark coined
By a finger of sun from the mint of Long Ago
Was the last of Lancelot's glitter. Make-believe dies hard;
That the rider passed here lately and is a man we know
Is still untrue, the gate to Legend remains unbarred,
The grown-up hates to divorce what the child joined.

Thus from a city when my father would frame
Escape, he thought, as I do, of bog or rock
But I have also this other, this English, choice
Into what yet is foreign; whatever its name
Each wood is the mystery and the recurring shock
Of its dark coolness is a foreign voice.

Yet in using the word tame my father was maybe right,
These woods are not the Forest; each is moored
To a village somewhere near. If not of to-day
They are not like the wilds of Mayo, they are assured
Of their place by men; reprieved from the neolithic night
By gamekeepers or by Herrick's girls at play.

And always we walk out again. The patch
Of sky at the end of the path grows and discloses
An ordered open air long ruled by dyke and fence,
With geese whose form and gait proclaim their consequence,
Pargetted outposts, windows browed with thatch,
And cow pats - and inconsequent wild roses.

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