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Thursday, November  01, 2007 -- Shawwal 19, 1428 A.H


Defining beauty


Salwat Ali

Timeless and yet constantly evolving, human beauty eludes standard definitions. From ancient foot binding to today's Botox injections, the concept of the ideal has undergone many shifts and changes and continues to enjoy a many splendoured existence. A recent exhibition, Beauty in Asia: 200 BCE to Today at the Asian Civilisation Museum (ACM) Singapore celebrates all that is beautiful across Asian cultures, ancient and contemporary. Curated by the ACM, the exhibition has a pan-Asian focus, featuring over 300 artefacts, including sculptures, paintings and jewellery from Southeast Asia, South Asia, China and West Asia. The exhibition examined several key themes Ideals of Beauty, the Quest for and Celebration of Beauty, and what can be considered to be Spiritual Beauty.

For the first time, the museum has incorporated contemporary artworks into the exhibition, to show the contrast between ancient and contemporary concepts of beauty. The contemporary works include a life-sized nude figure by Chinese sculptor Cai Zhisong, a lithograph by local lensman Russell Wong and a painting of Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai by Indian artist Ratan Parimoo.

This exhibition introduced visitors to the thinking behind beauty as defined in different Asian cultures; how these values and philosophies have influenced the objects and artworks that were made, and what people go through in order to be seen as beautiful. "The understanding of what is beautiful is constantly evolving, and we hope that the visitor will be challenged to find his own definition of beauty after seeing the exhibition," said Dr Kenson Kwok, Director of the Asian Civilisations Museum.

While many classical Asian and western cultures shared common ideals of symmetry, balance and harmony, these ideals have changed over time. Through archetypal representations of male and female beauty in Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Khmer arts, visitors will learn how early Asian civilisations saw ideal beauty as expressed in the human form.

A key exhibit in the section on Ideal Beauty is a bronze sculpture of the Hindu Goddess Uma Parameshvari from the Chola period (11th century) in southern India. This exceptional bronze shows a slender, voluptuous goddess of exquisite beauty and delicate proportions, wearing a beautifully detailed costume and jewellery. In contrast, a rare late 19th to early 20th century female ancestor figure from the remote island of Flores in Indonesia reflects the bold and abstract aesthetics of tribal cultures. A figure like this would have represented an ancestor spirit and apart from being carefully made to look beautiful, would also have been deeply venerated as a symbol of energy and power.

Adornment of the body is explored under the theme of Quest for Beauty. Included in this section are displays of jewellery, headdresses, textiles, as well as objects used for grooming. Ancient and modern means of beautifying oneself are also juxtaposed, such as foot binding in traditional China and plastic surgery in our present era.

Throughout the ages, man has rewarded beauty in various ways. This is elaborated in the section covering Celebration of Beauty. From the heavenly "apsaras" depicted in Indian mythology to the modern day beauty pageant contestant, the most beautiful men and women are constantly celebrated for their beauty. Displayed in this section are splendid implements and objects that would have been befitting of the user's status.

The section on Spiritual Beauty focuses on the inner beauty of the soul. In contrast with physical beauty, the beauty of the soul does not require the physical form to be beautiful. Inner or spiritual beauty is considered more enduring and more desirable than physical beauty. Hence, physically ugly characters such as yakshas or nature spirits and dwarfish clown servants are regarded as embodiments of wisdom and truth in Asian cultures. For the Chinese, virtue is valued above physical beauty. In Tantric ritual and art, beauty is perceived at many levels, from the level of physical form to the level of formlessness.

The exhibition concluded with an educational display with a computer interactive which invited the visitor to put together different facial features to form the most beautiful face. Public programmes organised in conjunction with the exhibition included screenings, lectures and dialogue sessions which examined the portrayal of beauty in film and art.

"In todays world there is so much persuasive advertising of the western ideals of beauty that in Asia we have begun to forget the Asian esthetic values," says Ghauri Parimoo Krishnan, the exhibitions curator. While slimness has become an international beauty standard, the show makes clear that it was not always so in Asia. Its "Fat Lady" exhibit, a small painted earthenware figurine dating from the ninth century shows a chubby face and full figure.

The Indian Yakhshi sculpture emphasizes a narrow waist, wide hips and full thighs and breasts, considered ideal for childbearing. The Quest for Beauty section highlights the painful lengths to which women have gone to uphold prevailing trends. On display were lotus-feet shoes used for foot binding once considered erotic as well as heavy brass coils worn around the neck by some Thai and Burmese tribeswomen, who sought to push down their shoulders and ribs and create a long necked look.

Pieces like the rare 15th century kneeling figure from North Vietnam, Javanese shadow puppets of clown servants and statues of ugly but benevolent Indian Spirits also challenges the age-old notion of evil as ugly and goodness as beautiful. "They teach us that beneath their appearance lies great wisdom," says Heidi Tan, a curator at the ACM. Their beauty, in other words, goes far deeper than the skin.


Sherlock Holmes

Taking detective fiction a long way

Before the world was treated to the many 'flavours' presented by motion pictures, people had other brilliant ideas to entertain themselves. They exercised their imaginations through reading all sorts of books and related forms of written literature.

Detective fiction was one genre which had a strong following ever since its informal debut many years ago. Children and adults alike would stay up all night reading, captivated by the thrill and suspense associated with detective books. The excitement usually clings to a reader even if he or she isn't actually reading the story; oftentimes people would not hesitate to pick up a detective book and finish it just to know how the story ends.

What gives detective books its flair? Simply put, they give the readers a good mental image of the actual scene and its events, while having them think at the same time. The unpredictability of good detective fiction has always been a quality that readers keep coming back for.

Stories which are classified as detective fiction usually start off with a description of a particular crime or mystery. As the reader turns the pages of the detective book he or she will be led to many bizarre or uncommon circumstances. This places more emphasis on the need to find a solution or an explanation to why the introduced event happened. The protagonist is usually a detective whose degree of experience can vary. A 'foil', or an accident-prone/less competent male or female is usually introduced as the detective's assistant. Together, these key characters would decipher all sorts of clues, analyze situations, and piece them all together.

This process of collecting data takes up most of the plot. It is up to the creativity of the author to keep the reader hooked to the logical path of clues. A twist is usually added here and there to serve as distractions in a good number of ways. They can divert the reader's attention away from critical details. Better yet, they can lead the reader to think that they have it all figured out, until another logical twist is introduced, much to their surprise. Through it all, the detective feels all sorts of emotions and tries all sorts of methods to figure things out. Deductive reasoning is one very common method used by protagonists in many detective books.

The solution of the crime usually serves as the ultimate climax of the detective fiction stories. Here, the foil's more conventional level of intelligence is used by the author to explain the elaborate solution to the crime in words the reader would understand easier. The whole experience of reading a detective fiction story is truly breathtaking.

Edgar Allan Poe is credited to author the very first detective fiction story in 1841. Entitled 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue', it starred C. Auguste Dupin, the very first detective. The fame of this short story eventually led to two 'sequels' which featured the same detective. One of these stories, 'The Mystery or Marie Roget', is intriguing for expressing Poe's fictionalised point of view regarding a real-life crime, the murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers.

More importantly, that detective fiction story served as inspiration for many authors to create and innovate in the genre. One of these authors could have been a certain Scottish doctor and writer, whose innovative skills with the pen have earned him knighthood in the United Kingdom. In other words, one of these authors could have been Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, revolutionary author of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Ask a person you know to tell you the first word he thinks about when you say 'Sherlock Holmes', and expect him to say 'detective', or something close to that. Sherlock Holmes stands out among the many various protagonists in the genre as being the most famous detective. His antics in every story that Conan Doyle wrote about him demonstrate his sheer brilliance in data gathering and analysis. This character, often pictured as a sophisticated gentleman wearing a deerstalker cap while smoking a pipe, is also depicted as a master of disguise. The depth of his character is seen in his well-elaborated emotions throughout every detective fiction story he is featured in. To him, life needed stronger thrills, and this led to his resistance to feel love, which he believed was a hindrance beneath his concerns.

Sherlock Holmes is known for the line, 'Elementary, my dear Watson'. Many will be surprised to learn that this line was never directly uttered by Holmes. However, he does refer to less-insightful attempts in information analysis as 'Elementary', and he frequently refers to his confidante, Dr. John H. Watson, as 'my dear Watson'.

John Hamish Watson was a doctor who served as Sherlock Holmes' 'biographer' in a majority of stories. He 'narrated' all but 4 of Conan Doyle's pieces of detective fiction related to Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Watson serves as Holmes' foil in the sense that he has a more conventional point of view over things. He shares the sentiments and opinions of an ordinary man. This state of mind usually clashes with Holmes' more logical and analytical way of thinking. One educates, while the other maintains balance. This relation between the two diverse minds has been a symbolic situation expressed in many of Holmes' stories.

Together, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson take on all sorts of crimes and mysteries to solve, meeting and dealing with many diverse characters along the way. Holmes is shown to demonstrate his superior skills in investigation over local officers of the law, including those working for Scotland Yard. Holmes also had an arch-enemy, Professor James Moriarty, who was featured in a good number of Conan Doyle's works. Finally, there is Irene Adler, the one woman whom Holmes showed the most appreciation and attraction for.

There are nearly sixty pieces of literary work written by Conan Doyle which featured Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Of all these stories, it is 'The Adventure of the Speckled Band' and the 'The Red-Headed League' that are arguably the favourites of many 'Sherlock Enthusiasts'.

The stories of Sherlock Holmes have undoubtedly lured many to the sophisticated genre of detective fiction. There are many competent writers who followed the approaches of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with their own unique qualities related to the suspense and thrill brought on by detective fiction. Nowadays, early detective books are still good reading, but they are also collectors' items too. Their significance during an earlier era and the quality of the stories make them highly prized by enthusiasts.

It is quite 'Elementary' to expect that stories of Sherlock Holmes and other detective books would continue to be loved by children and adults alike.


-- Chris Haycock



Window to Afghanistan

The Parwan Wind: Dust Motes

By: B K Zahrah Nasir

Published by: Oxford Oxford University Press,

Plot 38, Sector 15, Korangi Industrial Area,

Karachi-74900. UAN: 111 693 673

email: [email protected]

Price: Rs350, Pp: 233

Lubna Jerar Naqvi

When one thinks about Afghanistan, one only sees death, destruction and extremists who make up the country at least what is seen through the media. But in reality that is not what Afghanistan is all about, it is in fact an ancient civilisation, with a character and history of its own which has endured continuous onslaught. Seldom does one see the real Afghanistan from behind the smoke and fire, which is still beautiful now.

The real Afghanistan only comes through real life accounts of people who have been there or lived there, and this is fortunately possible through books written by these eye witnesses. One such amazing book on Afghanistan is 'The Parwan Wind: Dust Motes' by B K Zahrah Nasir, who has actually spent time with the mujaheedin during the fighting, survived and wrote an amazing book 'The Gun Tree'. Some readers felt that 'The Gun Tree' was too short to encompass the history of Afghanistan, and were delighted that Zahrah Nasir decided to do a 'sequel'.

'The Parwan Wind: Dust Motes' is based on the time after the allied forces have taken over. It is based on a time of rebuilding and peace, when Banafsha (as Zahrah Nasir is known in Afghanistan) returns to her beloved country. She finds this country changed from the time she had been here, there is still tension, firing and raids and the landscape is dangerous with live landmines. Buildings are riddled with bullets and rocket attacks amidst the reconstruction of the country.

The author finds her in the amidst of this rebuilding not only of the infrastructure but also of the government, with most of her 'comrades' Anwar and Gul Riaz different men, the former an important personality in the new government. She realises that everything has changed, and men she had spent dangerous times with seemed aloof. She is respected by all, especially since she had survived under the fighting during her previous visit. She is given a lot of protocol due to this but she cannot adjust to the new scenario as she is always comparing this Afghanistan to the one she had been accustomed to.

The author spends a lot of time waiting for the people she wants to interview, and is sent on rendezvous of all sorts to while the time. During these visits she gets to meet a lot of different people, mainly young, and she is surprised to see the change in the society. It is interesting to see the actual Afghan society behind the veils and restrictions and how things have evolved. The author was surprised to see that underneath the traditional garb the Afghans were more liberal than the world knows them to be, the students are more vocal and willing to move forward in life instead of dwelling in the past. Zahrah notices that there is marked difference in their attitudes, which is more confident and refreshing then she remembers from her prior visit there.

Another interesting point that she has highlighted is the fact that those who fought against the Taliban and those who opted to leave to safer countries, want their Afghanistan back and expect to bring their children, bred and brought up in the west to settle in their homeland. These people don't consider that this will be difficult if not impossible, they are planning ahead without willing to except that their children may not want to return to 'home' and are more comfortable in their new found dwelling.

Zahrah has managed to intertwine the past and the present with such ease, that the reader breezes through the narrative, which is itself short, at times single sentenced but conveying everything that the author wants to say. There are no long paragraphs, and the chapters are short and sweet without loosing the flavour of the narration. The photographs of actual people also add to the interest of the book.

The best part of books like 'The Parawan Wind' is that they are windows to Afghanistan which the world is not really aware about. The media seldom shows Afghanis as people, they are depicted as suicide bombers, Taliban or victims. Never as thinking, acting, reacting or feeling humans. More books based on real incidents should be written using the human angle of Afghanistan as the pivot, so that more interest can be generated for this country and the problems that it is facing. Maybe things can be changed for the better if more and more people realise that Afghanistan is more than a nation being bombarded from all sides.


'Search' made easy

Web Guide to Pakistan

Compiled and Edited by Akhtar Jamal

Published by: Tele-Visual Infolink

House 181, St 61 G 7/2-4


Price: Rs 500.00 (CD incl) Pp: 296



Ishrat Hussain

Internet is a phenomenon that has brought knowledge based revolution by creating multi-billion data files, facts and figures, history, and access to such information that was difficult or even impossible to obtain. Now, communication (email), interaction, chatting-platforms, songs and music and live shows and performances, theatre and movies, all have been made available through computers and on fingertips. This is the unique invention of this century, which has revolutionised the access to information. It is in this backdrop that Web Guide to Pakistan has been published to provide addresses of websites for easy and systematic approach to all kinds of information, without wasting time on search engines going through 'keywords' and then finding the most appropriate site. Going directly to web address is not only convenient but it saves a lot of time.

The author, Akhtar Jamal has been looking in areas which have been neglected by main stream publishers. He began with, "Who is Who" in Pakistan which had a good reception, and now with "Web Guide to Pakistan", he has opened a guide chapter which is a formidable work and provides useful and essential addresses for quick and direct access to information.

Normally, if the web address is not known then time is wasted by going through search engines and trying out with "key" words to locate a proper website. But with this book, as thousands of useful website addresses are provided, entry into required fields have been made trouble free, fast and directly into the thick of the information required. What is more important is that as the website information mostly relate to Pakistani concerns, it is that much more important to technology oriented Pakistani people to keep this guide handy for quick-reference purposes.

The contents begin with nearly all government-sites and leads to art and culture, business and economy, professional services, hotels, job and employment, e-shopping, educational departments/ institutions, colleges and universities, NGOs, overseas Pakistanis' sites, and many, many more.

Most of the offices, businesses, government departments, all types of institutions and organisations would find it very useful in their day to day business. Books like these help to make technology easy and user friendly.

Akhtar Jamal belongs to journalist fraternity and thus had a wide ranging experience. He has travelled widely and attended various organizational conferences and meetings. Athar is founder and editor-in-chief of Pakistan Press Agency (PPA) and co-founder of Tele-Visual Infolink. His wide ranging activities has given him an insight into 'where and what' is needed and how to best serve the community. Editing and compiling Web Guide to Pakistan is one out of his many activities accomplished in the interest of providing the best and useful information that is possible.


Post script

Disjointed soul

Despairingly lonesome

Withering rapidly

With fading beats

Seeks to quench

From drying wells

A thirst of being longed

By a beloved soul

Residing far and distant

The heart bleedest forth

For thou aren't nearest

Thy fragrance fills the air

Its stuns and unleashes

Furious yearning

For thee to be here

Now and forever!

Alas! were this not happens

I shall moan, tremble and twist

In the arms of helplessness

Whilst thou embark in

Search of new destinations

Remain I shall etched

On every memory cell

Fade I shall not, even if

Thou tyrest with hope

My flame of love

Will not flicker

It shall blaze

Inside your heart

And envelop you forever

-- Sirajuddin Aziz


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