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The making of Mapu

Martand Singh, a seminal figure in the world of textile conservation died last month. A writer remembers his indelible influence

Art critic Richard Bartholomew captured Martand Singh (centre) in a black and white frame at a fabric store in Jaipur in the 1970s. Photo: Courtesy The Estate of Richard Bartholomew.
Art critic Richard Bartholomew captured Martand Singh (centre) in a black and white frame at a fabric store in Jaipur in the 1970s. Photo: Courtesy The Estate of Richard Bartholomew.

The boredom of a colonial society can sometimes be mistaken for stability. But, long before outside events intervened, I knew my world in Delhi was not stable. I knew that the isolation of our English-speaking world in India could not last. I knew, too, that my triangulations were not a private matter. They were part of a tension that was playing out through the society at large. The three places I oscillated between represented three very different directions in which my life could go: New York, where I imagined I would be free of the past, free to make myself over; Banaras (now Varanasi), where I would try actively to overcome the isolation of my upbringing, try, as it were, to make a “return to self"; and then there was Delhi, where I had returned to live after a decade abroad, and where I felt myself to be in purgatory. When, in 2008, a few years after my return, life in Delhi grew too arid, the person I went to see was Mapu.

He was among the very few people I knew who had made a journey back. He had tried to undo the harm done to him by his education. He belonged to a princely family, the second son of a second son. His parents were of a generation of Indians who were culturally and linguistically bilingual. His mother, the daughter of the raja of Kashipur, had been a celebrated beauty of Europe in the 1930s. She was the muse of photographer Man Ray; a close personal friend of heiress Barbara Hutton, and was dressed by Mainbocher. Aunty Sita! She was wonderful. Mapu and my mother had been friends for decades, and I remember aunty Sita well: a tiny woman with a cap of woolly white hair, dressed forever in a widow’s white. I had a passion for the gods, and she would recite the Sanskrit hymn associated with the destructive dance of Shiva. I didn’t understand the words, but its dark dithyrambic beat made my hair stand on end. Mapu had inherited something of her luminosity; but by the time he grew up, the age of Indian bilingualism was over.

As a young man, he paddled in the shallows of café society. He wore leather trousers, and listened to the Eagles. He went abroad to meet the grand friends of his parents. He was spotted arriving at JFK airport in a peacock feather cape. He was the cause of a minor diplomatic incident when a prominent New York social figure introduced him to India’s permanent ambassador to the UN—soon after Indira Gandhi had abolished the princes—as, “and this, your Highness, is your ambassador to the United Nations." The ambassador was enraged.

It was a pared down version of the life his parents had led, and Mapu must have known none of it really meant anything. Colonization overlaid by socialism had beggared the Indian aristocracy in myriad ways. They had lost their money; but they had also lost the style and confidence that comes to people who are culturally whole, and who know their own culture before they know another.

Mapu broke with this world, with its emptiness and ennui, and set himself on a course of cultural restitution. He taught himself about Indian textiles; he redesigned a jewel of a museum in Ahmedabad called the Calico Museum of Textiles; he was part of the founding of Intach, one of the country’s first and most important conservation organizations. He went to Banaras over and over again, educating himself on the precise meaning of Indian ritual. The country that his mother had been able so effortlessly to reach into became his again. India ceased to be background, ceased to be an interlude between foreign trips. His efforts earned him the scorn of his friends. They accused him of having gone native. “He used to be so glamorous," one friend of his told me, “but Ahmedabad was the ruin of him."

It was rubbish, of course; it was his making. He could never completely reverse the damage his colonial education had done to him; once the break occurs it occurs; it can never be papered over. It must be acknowledged, and the only way forward “is through". The loss of culture is no substitute for culture, but it can occasionally allow one to look freshly upon what others, more culturally intact, have taken for granted. It can give the eye a touch of patina.

Mapu broke with this world...and set himself on a course of cultural restitution. He taught himself about Indian textiles; he redesigned a jewel of a museum in Ahmedabad called the Calico Museum of Textiles; he was part of the founding of Intach, one of the country’s first and most important conservation organizations.

We sat in Mapu’s office in a lush enclave of New Delhi. It was 2008. I was at the beginning of a decade-long association with Banaras, in which Mapu was to play an important part. The room was bare and bright, save for a painting of a blue dancing Shiva. Mapu was dressed in a white kurta, ribbed and starched. He had a classical face, prominent eyes and cheekbones. Only good emotions had been allowed to etch their lines on that face. He was in his 60s, but he could still erupt into fits of childish laughter, as if reaching into a deep spiritual reserve where only exuberance and joy lay.

Mapu was the first person to tell me about Kamlesh Dutt Tripathi, head of Sanskrit at Banaras Hindu University, and “an Indian Calasso, a man who could pass a flowering tree, pick one, and say, ‘Mapu, you know, this is the flower Kalidasa uses as an earring in such and such play.’"

“What?!" Mapu said, re-enacting his surprise. “How do you know that?" Tripathi would then show it to him in a text.

This was the kind of knowledge Mapu had seen disappear in India from one generation to the next. The lines of transmission had gone dead. Not centuries ago; but just the other day. In his own lifetime, Mapu had seen the stream of continuity run dry. He felt the loss more keenly than most because he had worked in conservation.

“And I did it all wrong," he cried.

He recalled one project in which he laid stone over all the ghats. When it was done, he went up and down the Ganga in a boat, proudly inspecting his achievement. On the shore, an old man approached with a troubled expression. He said, “But where will I read my Ramayan?"

“What do you mean?" Mapu said. “Here. There. Anywhere you like."

“But it’s all stone," the man replied.

“So?" Mapu said.

“Have you ever walked on the stone in the heat?" the man asked. “It becomes very hot. I won’t be able to sit on it."

Mapu was so upset he came back and resigned. He hadn’t realized that that particular ghat had always been left unpaved; trees grew there; it was a place of shade and cool, where people could come and read their scriptures.

“Isn’t there anyone to tell me these things?" he cried, seeing in this one crisis many others. “No writers, no historians, no architects?"

Mapu had many such stories, but the theme was always the same: They each spoke of the mistakes a culturally denuded ruling class is destined to make when it stands at too great a remove from the country it seeks to govern. The misadventures were many: from the defaced skylines of temple towns to futile attempts to clean the Ganga, large smelly public bathrooms that spoilt the atmosphere of the ghat, and amphitheatres for the arts that sat in disuse because a train ran overhead every few minutes. The modern state was inorganic. It stood at too great a distance from the society over which it exerted tremendous power. Mapu had dedicated his life to closing the cultural gap between his class of person in India, and the country at large; but the lesson of his life was not restitution; it was irrecoverable loss.

What modicum of wholeness Mapu found through his knowledge of ritual and textile, I hoped to find through language and literature—Sanskrit, in particular.

Mapu listened a while, then said: “You’re a very intense young man. And this is a language whose every nuance will come to intrigue you. It is important to know where to stop, important not to be sucked in by Sanskrit."

That was when he mentioned Kamlesh Dutt Tripathi. He ardently hoped that Tripathi would agree to be my teacher. He spoke romantically of the relationship between student and teacher.

“Just as the guru chooses his shishya," Mapu said, “so too must the shishya choose his guru."

Mapu’s own search for a guru—which brought him to Ram Shankar Tripathi of the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir—had exactly resembled Arthur Koestler’s description of it in The Lotus And The Robot: “The young aspirant must set out in search of his guru and must, if necessary, continue his search for years until he finds the guru destined to him—like a soul in search of his assigned body. Once they meet, the pupil will instantaneously recognize his appointed master."

When Ram Shankar Tripathi first set eyes on Mapu, he simply said, “Aa gaye ho, raja saab (You’ve come, raja saab)?" And that was that.

Mapu had first gone to Banaras at the age of 19 as part of a self-education in textiles. “I fell in love with the city as a young man," he said, “and it has always been my first love." He stayed in a palace, and what he remembered above all else was the sound of bells. “I will always think of it as the city of bells."

A mist came over his face as he spoke. Mapu never recovered language; but he had made his peace with India, and the light of that peace was there on the broad smooth plate of his face.

I was getting up to leave—he had printed out a list of contacts for me in Banaras—when his expression darkened. His mouth grew small, his lips arched.

He said: “But you have to be able to hate it as well. You have to be able to look at that river and say, ‘I hate you.’ And when it gets too much, you must flee."

Adapted from the forthcoming book, The Twice-Born (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

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