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Paperback Pickings

Films, ruins, poems and pottery

Portrait of a director: Satyajit Ray (Penguin, Rs 495) by Marie Seton is a valuable and long-overdue reprint of the only book worth reading on this film-maker, apart from his own writings and a little-known monograph by Robin Wood. This is a critical study of Ray’s early films, life and working habits, first published in 1971 by a brilliant and unusual Englishwoman, who had also written on and warmly befriended Paul Robeson, Sergei Eisenstein and Nehru. Pamela Cullen’s new preface provides a beautifully written portrait of Seton, who embodied a vanished cosmopolitan ethos of cultural excellence, sympathy and ease, of which Ray’s early films were a part: “through a haze of her cigarette smoke, and over an agreeable lunch, I discovered she was an extraordinary, stimulating, witty person with words and ideas tumbling out of her lips with hardly a pause.” This reprint appends Seton’s other articles on Ray, and some little pieces by Ray himself. Indrani Majumdar updates the book, in a sort of bland and more or less uncritical monotone, to cover the later films which Seton, who died in 1985, had not written about. It is not easy to write intelligently about the decline of a genius. Sandip Ray’s foreword is quite helpful — it teaches the reader how to pronounce Seton’s first name correctly.

The circle of six season: A selection from old Tamil, Prakrit and Sanskrit poetry (Penguin, Rs 250) translated by Martha Ann Selby is an elegant selection of classical Indian poems on the seasons from the first to the mid-8th centuries. Selby organizes the anthology according to the Ritusamhara scheme, starting with summer and ending with spring. Here is a verse from the Gathashaptashati: “Like the hearts of good men when riled,/ the depths of wide lakes stay cool/ in the autumn months/ while their surfaces boil.”

Gibbon on Christianity (Rupa, Rs 150) reproduces chapters 15 and 16 of Edward Gibbon’s Augustan masterpiece, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The opening lines give a sense of Gibbon’s grand design, and also make up a couple of magnificent sentences: “A candid but rational enquiry into the progress and establishment of Christianity may be considered as a very essential part of the history of the Roman empire. While that great body was invaded by open violence, or undermined by slow decay, a pure and humble religion gently insinuated itself into the minds of men, grew up in silence and obscurity, derived new vigour from opposition, and finally erected the triumphant banner of the cross on the ruins of the Capitol.”

Israel’s wars: A history since 1947(Routledge, Rs 395) by Ahron Bregman is an overview of Israel’s wars with the Palestinians and the Arabs, provided by a journalist who used to be a captain in the Israeli army and a parliamentary assistant at the knesset. It starts with the 1947-48 Jewish-Palestinian struggle for possession and mastery of the land of Palestine, and concludes with the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation between 1987 and 1993, the Intifada and its sequel, the Al-Aqsa Intifada of 2000. It is also about the people living in a nation-in-arms, who are, as is often said, “soldiers on eleven months’ annual leave”.

The art of Jatin Das(Roli, Rs 150) by Shobita Punja is a postcard book of reproductions with a little introduction to the artist. There are sketches and paintings, mostly of human beings and forms, and also his recreations of the crafts of Orissa, including lac-teracotta sculptures. This is his portrait of Sardar Gurcharan Singh (“Papaji”), the father of Indian studio pottery, who made Das a member of the Delhi Blue Pottery Trust.


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