The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Paperback Pickings

Strange destruction in the sky

Prophecies (Hesperus, £ 5.99) by Leonardo da Vinci is a selection from his various notebooks — written by this left-handed genius in a laterally inverted script. These are aphorisms and fragments, grouped by the translator, J.G. Nichols, under headings like pleasantries, fables, bestiary and “fantastic descriptions”. There are also the fragments of a “spiritual autobiography”, with the famous vision in front of a cave born out of the “fear of the dark and threatening den, and desire to see if there was any extraordinary thing inside it”. Empirical observation becomes wondering scrutiny in these fragments: “The moon, dense and heavy, dense and heavy, how is it with the moon'” There are apocalyptic prophecies, echoing Revelations, about “strange destruction in the sky”, and natural minutiae turning into fable: “The spider was waiting among the grapes to catch the flies which fed on them, and when the harvest came the spider was crushed together with the grapes”. There is also a fascination with the grotesque in the Borgesian lists of fantastic animals. This is a compelling glimpse into the mental universe of a Renaissance artist, moralist and natural philosopher.

mother teresa (Penguin, Rs 250) by Navin Chawla is a revised and updated edition of a 1992 biography the writing of which was “blessed” by the subject. This is an informative and amply illustrated work, poised at the threshold of hagiography.

elephanta (India Book House, price not mentioned) by George Michell is an excellent little book by a serious but readable scholar of Asian architectural history. This is a detailed yet concise account of the caves, created more than 1,400 years ago, on the Elephanta island in Mumbai harbour, particularly the magnificent sculptures of Shiva carved onto the walls inside the main cave. This is both a full historical account of works of art and the description of a spiritual and aesthetic pilgrimage, “a progression towards the world of the god”: “water must be crossed, a mountain climbed and a cave entered”.The bulk of this book is built around Bharath Ramamrutham’s pictures of the caves and panels. Michell analyses the plan of the main caves and takes us through the sculptural panels, depicting the various aspects of Shiva (yogi, androgyne, gambler, Parvati’s husband). Another section outlines the ethical and didactic underpinnings of classical Hindu philosophy in the architecture and sculpture. He also appends excerpts from memoirs and travelogues of the Portuguese and British periods, giving accounts of the discovery of Elephanta.

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