A Few of Our Favorite Things: A Conversation on Khatamkari

The following is a guest post by Shangri La guides Susan Berg and Miki Yamashiro.

Susan Berg: Hey Miki, Shangri La guides were asked to do a blog on one of their favorite pieces at Shangri La. Want to try?

Miki Yamashiro: Sue Berg, what are you getting me into now? But sure, there are so many things I love about Shangri La—how do we pick just one?

Sue: What in the collection really draws your attention?

The living room at Shangri La, with khatamkari doors. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)
The living room at Shangri La, with khatamkari doors. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)

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A Few of Our Favorite Things: A Jewel in Its Own Right

The following is a guest post by Shangri La guide Susan Killeen.

While showing guests through the Syrian Room at Shangri La, one of my joys is lighting up the low tea table (65.9) under the nineteenth-century Moroccan embroidered and appliqued textile in the smaller room. It’s as if the table waits patiently in the dimly lit space to perform for visitors when the light shines, and it never fails to elicit a chorus of oooos.

Table (khwan) (65.9). Iran, late nineteenth-early twentieth century. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)
Table (khwan) (65.9). Iran, late nineteenth-early twentieth century. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)

The table, or khwan, is a beauty from late nineteenth–early twentieth-century Iran, probably the Qajar period. When created, it very likely did not have the same legs, and may have had short ones to elevate it just slightly. Rather than a table, this ornate piece was most likely an elaborate tray or “trencher” as it might be called. One might imagine that it once carried an array of sweet and savory dishes to be shared with guests.

Detail of table (65.9). Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)
Detail of table (65.9). Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)

An excellent example of the artistic genius found in Islamic art, the table asserts the details of geometry, calligraphy, floral, and figurative imagery—a visual delight. The surface is a painted, gilded, and lacquered wood graced with scenes of princely life. Exquisitely featured medallions or cartouches depict several figures in a forest landscape with a variety of birds and wild animals. A number of leisurely figures interact while two youths demonstrate their prowess on horseback. The overall dimensions of the piece are 11 3/8 x 32 5/8 x 62 inches.

A narrow, floral border frames the central panel. Inscriptions of Persian poetry surround the edges of the table, beginning in the upper right hand corner and continuing around to the left. True to the artistic culture and custom of the period, the poetry (translated by former scholar-in-residence Wheeler Thackston) praises the table for its beauty and service:

habbaza khwane ki naqshash bas khwash u zebasti
O what a marvelous table, the design of which is so pleasing! How beautiful you are!

hamchu chihr-i dilbaran janbakhsh u ruhafzasti
Like the countenances of charmers, you are life-giving and spirit-increasing.

rashk-i naqsh-i Azar u Mani ki naqshash chun nigar
A design so beautiful it would make Azer and Mani jealous.

dilsitan u naghz u khwash u zebasti
Ravishing, comely, beautiful, good, and charming you are.

inchunin alhaq qarin-i khanda khwan u naqsh band
Thus truly a table and design coupled with laughter.

diljo-i bazm-i shahanshah-i jahan-arasti
You are a comfort at the banquet of a world-adorning king of kings.

For me, the fact that an otherwise utilitarian object would be so charmingly embellished speaks to the fact that the arts have the power to lift us up and enrich the function and beauty of the everyday items we use. The artisans of Islamic culture certainly appreciated this concept as a way of life.

susanAbout the Guest Author: Susan Killeen is a writer and producer, having worked in television and on educational documentaries. She served as executive director of the Hawaii Consortium for the Arts and as President of the Honolulu Pen Women. She has taught creative writing and has worked as an interpretive guide at Shangri La since 2011.

The View to an Expanding Horizon

The following is a guest post by Shangri La artist-in-residence Dr. Anita Vallabh.

As I sat on the lanai of the Playhouse, looking at the majesty of the ocean, its constant conversations with the shoreline, I imagined the romance of their nature. Yet each assumes a role true to itself, living its purpose. Having read Kahlil Gibran and Jalaluddin Rumi, I began to visualize the ocean as the lover seemingly seeking the beloved, somehow aware through its tireless efforts that the truth and power it seeks lie in its own depths, where silence reigns.

Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)
Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)

In the presence of such magnificence and enchanting beauty, how can one not be conscious of being within a space whose very description captures its ethereal beauty in the words itself? How can one not be true to oneself and create the most honest work of art? How can one not hold a mirror to one’s life? How can one not put their egoist considerations aside, consider their past mistakes and seize the present opportunity to rectify them? How far can the tears be, given the wonders and blessings of our lives? And of the many hardships and pains that taught us the most valuable lessons? How can we not infuse movements that transform everyday gestures and familiar behavior with aesthetic delight?

Going back and forth between art and life…like the resounding waves holding within their depths the silence of life………such is the enchantment of Shangri La.

Shangri La is a much-revered destination for scholars, artists and tourists. In opening its doors to research and researchers in diverse fields, they have built a body of work that enriches not only our understanding of the artifacts housed therein but also recreates the story of times bygone.

When I read Wheeler Thackston’s (scholar in residence, December 3–8, 2010) translations of verses inscribed on some of the artifacts, they suggested to me the spiritual discipline of the artists, and the aesthetic experience that allowed for such exquisite workmanship. These translations and the music of Ghulam Farid Nizami  (who performed at Shangri La in March 2012) provided me with the material for a new choreographic piece in dance. So many resources, so many opportunities made possible because of the dedication, fortitude and single-mindedness to serve the arts. To me, Shangri La represents an enduring legacy of learning.

Anita Vallabh, Vicky Holt Takamine, and Pua Ali‘i ‘Ilima rehearse in the Playhouse. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.
Anita Vallabh, Vicky Holt Takamine, and Pua Ali‘i ‘Ilima rehearse in the Playhouse. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

It is in this magical space that I was invited to perform. I am deeply humbled by this invitation to create and perform Suzani: A Weaving of Traditions along with my revered kumu, Vicky Holt Takamine, and her very creative son, Jeff Takamine. Vicky truly represents the beauty, grace and dignity of Hawaiian culture. As two artists respectful of each other’s legacies of inherited culture and tradition, we worked for ten days, weaving together, with an unwavering commitment, patterned sequences of movements—sometimes complimentary sometimes opposing—allowing the movements to communicate and flow into one another. There was only the desire to flow with the music and allow our trained bodies to seek the rhythmic patterns, sometimes following the rhythms of the music, sometimes finding the silent space between the rhythms and sometimes chanting over the music.

Each of us looked forward to the process and to the rigors of practice and more practice, and the many ideas and input from every dancer. We shared our cultures, our approaches to learning, and the unique teacher/student relationship. For me, the most memorable moment was watching Jeff choreograph to Indian/Sufi music—the shift in orientation that was required of him. His brilliant mind weaved together movements both graceful and powerful to seamlessly bring together the music and dance. Another unforgettable experience was learning to make a lei. In the short time that I had between practice sessions I tried my hand at slicing through the ti leaves. I was charmed by the aloha spirit that the dancers infused into the lei making process. Later Jeff told me that each dancer was required to make her lei with “good and happy thoughts.”

As the performance date approached, we became more relaxed and confident. The vagaries of the weather caused some anxiety, but time and again Kumu Vicky assured us that the weather Gods would bless the evening and the performance by providing us with the perfect backdrop and lighting.

She could not have been more accurate in her prediction.

Anita Vallabh, Vicky Holt Takamine, and Pua Ali‘i ‘Ilima performing Suzani: A Weaving of Traditions. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.
Anita Vallabh, Vicky Holt Takamine, and Pua Ali‘i ‘Ilima performing Suzani: A Weaving of Traditions. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

Based on this experience, it is my opinion that if two artists from significantly different backgrounds communicate well with each other and practice together they can weave the various elements of their individual artistic traditions around each other. What then evolves is a seamless weave of various threads into a cogent pattern, creating a tapestry of extraordinary cohesiveness.

I take back with me wonderful memories of time shared, of wonderful and inspiring people whose generosity continues to enrich and sustain my artistic life.

Thank you forever.

 

Making ti leaf lei. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.
Making ti leaf lei. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

About the Guest Author: Dr. Anita Vallabh is a Bharatanatyam dancer,
choreographer and teacher from Chennai, India. She was trained in the classical
traditions by Smt. Shanta and Sri. V.P. Dhananjayan. She was the recipient of
the National Award for the Best Dancer (1992-1993) from the National Hindi
Academy, Calcutta, and was conferred the title of “Kala Bharati”. Vallabh
received a Ph.D. from the University of Madras in 2002 and has performed
internationally throughout Asia, Europe and the United States. She is the
Creative Director the Chennai-based Aeka Academy, a holistic performing arts
school established under the auspices of Vaels’ Group Of Institutions.