Re(de)fining Work

I follow Albina Belova (choreographer for Enana Dance Theatre) on social media, and recently she posted some videos of impressive young dancers. I think most people watch a video like that and marvel at the girls’ abilities, so it intrigued me when her comment was: “Hard childhood?”

On reflection, it shed light on something she’d said to me a few months ago about growing up and training as an artist in Russia: [We had] good discipline – but also, so much was not allowed. So you try to find yourself in your work. But the only way to do that is to refine it, to keep refining and searching and refining.

Even though I did not undergo intensive arts training as a child (I was, in fact, barred from it), I remember feeling that this remark still resonated with me. Continue reading “Re(de)fining Work”

Beautiful Fakes and Mistakes

Calligraphy by Mohamed Zakariya

God Is Beautiful; He Loves Beauty was the title of a recent conference hosted at Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art. It comes from a popular saying that is touted as an utterance of Prophet Muhammad, though the evidence is weak that he ever said it. But even if it’s apocryphal in that sense, the saying still expresses a sentiment which has resonated in the Islamic world for centuries (whether taken with religious gravity or whimsically inscribed above a mirror).

The saying is on my mind because I’ve spent most of today reading about how various medieval Islamic thinkers posited the pursuit of pleasure/beauty as the way to God. And it’s made me realize that, in my research on Islamic astrolabes, apocryphal material (or even intentional lies and forgeries) have furnished some valuable leads.

For example, several sources in the premodern Islamic period say that أسطرلاب (astarlaab, the Arabic word for astrolabe) is that it comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “mirror of the stars”. Many scholars point out that this is incorrect, for the Greek term means “star-holder”. I do not dispute this; my own knowledge of ancient Greek confirms it. Yet doesn’t a mirror “hold” the image of its object? What if “star-mirror” were intended as a metaphorical translation, drawing attention to the idea that an astrolabe reflects aspects of the night sky? (Not only does Arabic love its metaphors, but even the original Greek is figurative – astrolabes do not literally grab anything!)

But whether or not you accept “star-mirror”, it seems the idea of an astrolabe as a mirror was present in the cultural/period mind of Islamic astrolabe-users. For instance, consider the conclusion of Rumi’s second discourse:

Just as this copper astrolabe is the mirror of the heavens, so the human being (…) is the astrolabe of God. When God causes man to have knowledge of Him and to know Him and to be familiar with Him, through the astrolabe of his own being he beholds moment by moment and flash by flash the manifestation of God and His infinite beauty, and that beauty is never absent from his mirror.

(Jalaluddin Rumi, 13th century AD; trans. A.J. Arberry, 1975)

These lines would lose much of their force if Rumi’s audience didn’t already conceive of astrolabes as mirrors. I argue that to ignore this sort of association belies the place that Islamic astrolabes occupied in the societies that used them.

More to the point, I contend that there is much more to Islamic astrolabes than their practical/scientific functions. There are wider cultural and spiritual contexts to the objects. I started this work with the idea that you don’t get such intensely decorated instruments by accident; they must have been made so for a reason. And between the surviving astrolabes from the period/region that are scientifically useless, and remarks such as:

“So much did they love to have one [an astrolabe] in their sight, although many could not understand one iota of it”.[1]

…we see that it is not just in the present day that people engaged astrolabes as art.

[1] From an 1875 Iranian text, quoted in: Gingerich, Owen, David King and George Saliba. “The ‘Abd al-A’imma Astrolabe Forgeries.” Journal for the History of Astronomy 3 (1972): 188-198.


This week in bharatanatyam, I’ve been working on Variation 4 of Visharu Adavu. I’d thought it was the third variation until my guru explained that she is purposely omitting Variation 3. Her rationale made sense – especially when she actually demonstrated the step – yet I feel I should be learning it regardless. (I’m surprised not to feel relieved; the step is pretty, but looks like something I won’t be able to execute well. Like Variation 8 of Natta Adavu, which I love to watch but hate to practise.)

I find myself in this sort of bind often. I believe in taking learning into my own hands, but I want to trust my teachers. I know they can make my learning process so much more efficient. But I have also been misled in the past – quite badly – by following teachers’ advice against my instincts. Continue reading “Variations”


A few weeks ago, I went to see Vertical Road by the Akram Khan Company. Inspired by Sufi themes, it was a beautiful and intense piece of dance – full of raw emotional energy and an incredible sense of connection between the dancers.

But I’ve been reflecting on something that Farooq Chaudhry (the producer) said in the press conference: “It’s not so much dance fusion as it is confusion.” He explained that Akram Khan (the dancer who started the company) was brought up learning Kathak, and when he took on contemporary dance at university, it left his body “confused”.

On many levels, I can relate. Continue reading “(Con)fusion”

Perpetual Emotion Machine

Manuscript page from Al-Muradi's 'Kitab al-Asrar'
Manuscript page showing a diagram of the first device in Al-Muradi’s ‘Book of Secrets’

Ibn Khalaf Al-Muradi’s Kitab Al-Asrar (Book of Secrets) is an 11th-century Andalusian Arabic manuscript describing how to construct several mechanical devices. Most of them have some sort of practical use, ranging from small clocks to an oscillating battering ram, but the first device in the manuscript is a strange toy. Operated by a series of pulleys and metal pans and channels that transfer water, it seems to have no function other than to animate the figures it showcases: a maiden at the door of her house, four gazelles drinking water, three snakes, and a young man within a well. 

You can see a modern reconstruction of the device in this video, from 0:23-0:45.

The movements of the figures seem to tell this little tale:
A boy loves a girl and tries to pay her a secret visit. He hides in the well on her family’s property one night and calls out her name. When he does, there are four gazelles drinking from the nearby stream and the girl opens the door upon this lovely tableaux. But before the boy can climb out of the well to reach her, three venomous snakes rise up and frighten off the gazelles – and the girl. So the boy hides in the well again to wait for another chance to see his love. But the snakes keep coming again, and again, and again.

Or, from the girl’s side:
One night, a girl hears a boy calling her name. She comes to the door of her house and sees four gazelles drinking. But before she can investigate further, the gazelles rear up in fear – and she realises there are snakes and she shuts the door against them. Until the boy calls her name again. But before she can meet him, the snakes rear up and frighten – every time.

Either way it’s like a poem crafted into a machine. And by telling the story this way – through a machine rather than words – creates an interesting effect by emphasising repetition. The tragedy of this story is not a single failed meeting, but a perpetual failure of the young man and woman to connect. And they keep trying again! And getting thwarted over and over.

Sadly the book does not delve into what inspired the designer to create this machine. But I do wonder. Was there a real incident that he couldn’t get over? Is it a metaphor for one person facing repeated rejection in love (or too much fear to pursue love at all)? Is it about the danger of clandestine relationships? Or of outside forces interfering too much even when a couple are willing…?