Unlike Shelley’s commentary in Ozymandius, the alternate ancient name for King Ramses II, the eponymous pharaoh did manage to leave behind quite a lot of his signature for posterity to remember him by, including the humongous twin temples in Abu Simbel. Sculpted on the entrance walls in quadruplet, twenty-feet high rock-cut seated figures, wearing the double Atef crown, he seems to be still keeping a stony watch over his vast territory.
Many of the monuments he sponsored have chiselled on their surface information about him, an act replicated many times by kings in many lands: a royal history, subjective and partial to the ruler’s perception of his glory, and how he wished to be remembered. People in power with treasuries at their disposal have often turned to construction as a route to immortalising themselves. Where hoary alchemy has failed, as in the case of Shi Huangdi, China’s great First Emperor, cast figure models, tombs and varied enshrining projects have been undertaken. The Egyptians and Incas had by their practice of embalming the dead body, reached closest to actualising their aspirations for physical continuity.
A structure was often believed to be the grandest testimony of one’s having existed, and how!
We may flock to Louvre to click our smiling face in front of another well-known smiling face, but that’s about all we know of Leonardo’s many visionary inventions.
Perhaps old lores and memories put the awe of buildings in men who had, till not so long before, been flitting between empty caves for shelter. In the opulence of mansions and altars they sought to imprint their egos.
It is amazing how, given the earth’s temperamental climate, so much of all that is man-made has been allowed to survive by nature. Archaeology has enthusiastically pieced the biological and social journey of mankind on earth from fragmentary evidence.
But for much of these creations which remain, in whatever portion and condition, the creator(s) are untraceable. History has no person to allude fame to. No one knows who should be credited for Stonehenge, Easter Island rock physiognomy, El Castillo, Lascaux and Altamira. Was it one man, many, how many and who exactly?
Again, should the handiwork at all be attributed to the sponsors, many of whom simply had money and wanted to buy their way into greatness, or the planners and designers or the actual manual labourers who executed these? Does Shah Jahan deserve to have the greatness of the Taj ascribed to him, or should it rightfully belong with the nameless multitude who manually erected it?
Sometimes the financer was the designer and could probably earn artistic praise. But do mere sketch board artists deserve adulation over skilled workmen – this question hasn’t been raised or answered. The actual makers have largely passed into oblivion, without the haloed title of ‘creator’ bestowed on them.
For poorer men, and all those with a more refined definition of ‘achievement’, their own creative urges became the bricks to build with. Our work, it is often said, is all what we leave behind.
How far is this true?
How many outside the academic fraternity read Shakespeare’s entire original corpus these days? Except the begrudging literature student who must pass examinations, who bothers to cram his brain with the bard’s obscure imagery, often repetitive analogies and verbose dialogues? The market is flooded with cheap annotations and adaptations to spare them even that arduous time-consumption.
Yet his canon constitutes a tangible mere two or three digit number.
Film or fine art students may not have such easy escape routes. But how many would have had managed to see all the works of international auteurs outside of classrooms, specially their less epochal fruits?
An active study career permits one to examine things. You have readier access to lectures, libraries and teachers, often veritable and expert researchers themselves. Rarely can one retain the same leisure, energy or passion in other callings.
‘Versatile’ is a currency of awe attached to those whose level of productivity is higher than average and whose interests run through diverse fields. We rote the names of versatile geniuses and prodigies in childhood, that’s where our interests begin and end. We may flock to Louvre to click our smiling face in front of another well-known smiling face, but that’s about all we know of Leonardo’s many visionary inventions. How many have seen even a picture of a painting made by Winston Churchill? Or can name all the different fields Newton studied and drew conclusions about? How many of us have even heard of Henry Grey, Herbert Coleridge, Radhanath Sikdar, Pingala or what they have famously contributed to our existence?
The unkind truth is, tomorrow is too busy surviving its today. It simply doesn’t have t-i-m-e to remember yesterday.
As I grow older, I am seriously beginning to doubt the notion that we leave behind anything of us in our work. Karma Yoga is a religious ploy to keep us from laziness, that’s all.
Creators are crazy people, nagged by an altruistic servitude to a passion or talent. Like the foolish Jeanne d’Arc, they recklessly hallucinate about a purpose which often doesn’t keep them alive, feed their family and others find the least worthwhile. The Ashington Group slogged in mines by day and met in a small shack to paint their hearts out. Shakila is a nondescript village woman from Bengal till she sits before a canvas. Louise was just a blind boy who wanted to be able to read. Józef Teodor Konrad was an immigrant Pole consumed by enough literary fire to inspire many other famous contemporary modernist writers. Vermeer was struggling to cope with his wife’s material demands and chronic impregnations. Du Fu succeeded in failing every civil service examination he sat for.
Where in the popularity chart do they find themselves today? In a world exploding with people, what is the percentage that recognises these names or has experienced their work?
Creativity isn’t usually motivated by popular fame, but a dogged silliness to see an itch through to the end, and maybe, the prize money to pay overdue rent and grocery bills. However meticulous preservers their narcissistic craft makes of them, they have no control over the manner in which posterity will perpetuate their virtuoso, if at all.
Whether I toil or not, I’ve realised, ‘I’ will cease to exist with the death of the last person who holds any memory of me. That brain loses its register and I am flat lined, forever.
Mortality is nature’s essential blueprint, who am I to defy that which mighty pharaohs couldn’t? Who goes how far rebelling against the time tested-ly inevitable?
My wonderstruck remark on Rabindranath’s sheer volume of accomplishments recently sent someone into a tizzy. In a lengthy insolent vomit on Facebook he let the world know how much he knew about the poet, ordering all at large to be careful in their treatment of his personal god. His war cry on behalf of versatility, Rabindranath, Shakespeare, da Vinci et al, and the guardianship he claimed in defending their just renown hit me like a meteorite storm, those ugly projectiles of luminescence.
The genteel, humble poet would have cringed to see what was on display in his name. I don’t need more proof after this.
Not our work, acumen or pedantry, our best footprint on the trail through Planet Existence, are our smiles and good manners. That's the endowment worth leaving behind.