Sole Sister

Cruising in the single lane


Learning to sing


The term Songlines is widely recognised but for non-Indigenous Australians grasping the actually concept is more elusive. Hats off then to the National Museum of Australia in Canberra for its imaginative effort to bridge the gap of cultural enlightenment by taking the visitor on a colourful, multi-media Indigenous cultural journey through space and time across the continent and beyond.


Woven versions of the Seven Sisters created by Indigenous women. 

Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters focuses on sections of just five songlines, a mere handful of the thousands that track across Australia telling the Indigenous creation story.  Those stories could be described as parables imparting traditional laws and creation interpretations, the battle between good and evil. The seven sisters are chased across the land by the lustful, shape-shifting sorcerer Wati Nyiru. He can become a tree, or a serpant, always trying to tempt and confound the sisters as they flee across the land, each songline having a different version.

The songline left by the sisters in their flight across country, employing all the tricks they know, such as flying, to elude Wari Nyiru creates the features of the land – boulders, hills, trees and waterholes. Eventually they fly into the heavens where they merge with the Orion constellation and Pleiades star cluster.

Ceramic tributes to the songlines. 

The standout feature of the exhibition was the amazing six-metre digital dome room wherein visitors could lie back and watch a state-of-the-art digital, high-res experience including the transit of Pleiades and the Orion constellation, the Seven Sisters rock art from Cave Hill in South Australia and vision of the sisters flying into the night sky. Given the scientific revelation that we humans all carry elements from the Big Bang within us, I saw the elegance of this songline.



Going dotty


Yayoi Kusama has been called the “Priestess of Polka Dots”. And a few hours gazing at her creations is certainly enough to send you happily polka dotty. The Japanese octogenarian’s most recent Brisbane exhibition, which I just managed to catch before it wrapped up at the Gallery of Modern Art earlier this month didn’t disappoint in the dot department. Spots of all hues camouflaged sculptures, paintings of pumpkins, Picasso-like portraits, lighted and dark kaleidoscopic mirrored infinity installations, all creating a sense of collaboration with kids, Indigenous artists and the avant-garde art world. A visual blitzkrieg.


Kusama’s dot fetish was said to derive from an early childhood illness with hallucinations impairing her sight with dots in front of the eyes. Another of her themes is the concept of infinity which she represents not only through mirrored installations but infinity “net” paintings of endless interlinked patterns. The artist said this fascination was a result of looking down at the endlessness of the Pacific Ocean on her 1950’s flight from Japan to New York, where she became a leading art scene member. Pumpkins? She likes their shape, their “grotesqueness” and their “homeliness”.


Yayoi Kusama’s dotty interpretations of Marilyn Monroe (left) and Elizabeth Taylor. 

Mirrored infinity room installations. 

 It was Kusama’s third Queensland Art Gallery-GOMA outing, the first being at the Asia Pacific Triennial in 2002 when she especially wowed the kids with her “obliteration room”. Imagine being a kid walking into a room painted completely white and being invited to stick coloured dots wherever you like to your heart’s content!  The relationship between QAGOMA and Kusama nurtured through the Triennial was rewarded with another exhibition in 2012; the 2017-18 show Life is the Heart of the Rainbow; and major acquisitions making the Gallery’s collection one of the most significant in a public museum outside Japan.


Infinity nets. 




Booking some reading time

The Christmas-New Year break is my favourite time of the year – my “do nothing but read lots” time. The Christmas left-overs provide days’ worth of meals; there’s nothing compelling on TV; only kids’ movies on at theatres; friends are away; and who wants to fight over Boxing Day bargains? Perfect!

Happily, our end-of-year book club event at the Avid Reader Bookshop in West End, with Living Book-Advice Treasure Fiona Stager as our host and reading guide, offered plenty of suggestions to add to the waiting-to-be-read pile. They range from heartfelt novels, to historical fiction, memoir, fact-and-fiction mixes, biographies, short stories and science history. As with last year’s nominations many authors are Australian, a timely nod to the health of our literary creativity. Among Fiona’s personal recommendations are:

Music and Freedom, by Zoe Morrison, winner of the 2017 Australian Literary Society Gold Medal. The first-time novelist and music prodigy draws on her love of music and social issues in a gripping novel that examines how long-term domestic abuse can stifle the life chances of women.

IMG_9059The Restorer, by Michael Sala. A couple attempt a marriage reconciliation while embarking on the restoration of a terrace house in Newcastle. Fiona praises Sala’s writing saying he has “thought about every word on the page”. His first novel, The Last Thread, won the NSW Premier’s Award for new writing and was regional winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize.

First Person, by Richard Flanagan. Fiona found this novel interesting: part fact, part fiction. The protagonist, a struggling young writer, faces a moral dilemma when offered a commission to ghostwrite the memoir of a celebrated conman who is about to be jailed. She said First Person received some negative reviews. “Some men I know didn’t like it, but all the women did”, she said.  First Person is Flanagan’s first novel since winning the Booker Prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

City of Crows, by Chris Womersley, has an historical base, and is set in 17th century France, a time when life was hard and magic and witchcraft were commonplace.  Fiona describes it a “page-turner with a slightly sinister edge”. As a Sydney Morning Herald review noted, a really good writer like Womerlsey “can engage readers in things they didn’t know they’d be interested in.”

Dunbar, by Edward St Aubyn. This is one of publisher Hogarth’s series of Shakespeare classics reimagined in contemporary settings by selected writers. St Aubyn’s Henry Dunbar is a modern-day King Lear envisioned as the all-powerful head of an international media company with the capacity to ruin lives and reputations on a whim. Sound familiar? For literary history buffs, Hogarth Press is a British publishing house started in 1917 by Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

A New England Affair, by Stephen Carroll, the 2008 Miles Franklin Award winner. It’s the third of his novels about T. S. Eliot, using elements of Eliot’s poems and life as the basis. Each presents Eliot as he is known by others. In this a 74-year-old New England woman, with whom Eliot was said to have had a romantic connection, is the centre of the novel which deals with the concept of the lasting desolation caused by lost opportunities.

Extinctions, by Josephine Wilson, and the 2017 Miles Franklin Award winner. The plot revolves around a story of Frederick Lothian, an concrete engineering specialist, who has moved into a retirement village after his wife’s death. He has a difficult relationship with their adopted Indigenous daughter, Caroline, living in London and curating an exhibition about extinction; and little close contact with his son Callum, who is in care after suffering a serious brain injury in a car accident. Fiona said the “hook” for the story relates to what happened to both son and daughter.

Terra Nullius, by Claire Coleman, a  Noongar woman. Fiona describes the work as “speculative fiction”. At the time of our book club evening it was her current read.  She said the puzzle of the book was: “is it set now, or in the future. Or is it a dystopian novel?”

Common People by Tony Birch.   This is a book of short stories about individuals who have missed out on the great Australian Dream. “Birch’s themes are love, loss, poverty and pain,” said Fiona.

The Life to Come, by Michelle de Kretzer. The work consists of five sections that have an interconnection without being a continuous narrative. Only one character appears throughout. Writer Pippa Reynolds, who grew up as Narelle in North Sydney, changes her name on her 18th birthday because “no-one called Narelle’s ever going to win the Booker”.  This plays into the book’s dark humour theme of throwing a spotlight on Australian narcissism.  As in her other books de Kretzer weaves in a reference to her native Sri Lanka.

Saga Land, by Richard Fidler. This exploration of both the new must-see tourist destination of Iceland and the mysterious Sagas, the true stories of the first Vikings to settle the remote and unforgiving Arctic island in the Middle Ages, follows closely on the respected ABC interviewer’s earlier tome Ghost Empire. Fidler and Kári Gíslason connected during an interview and bonded over a mutual love of the Sagas. The book is the story of their research in Iceland which included a quest by Gíslason to solve a long-standing family mystery connecting them to the most famous Saga author. There could be no greater praise for Saga Land than for Hannah Kent, author of award-winning Iceland-based historical novel, Burial Rites, than her declaration she “adored” Saga Land.

Adventures of a Young Naturalist, by Richard Attenborough. The text was first published in 1956 but has been out of print for some time. Apparently a young publisher found a copy in a second-hand bookshop and here it is in print again for nature lovers and Attenborough-philes to enjoy anew.

The Ninth Hour, by Alice McDermott.  Fiona describes McDermott is a “writers’ writer”. She nominates this story of the poverty and struggles of Irish Catholic Brooklyn in the early 20th century, and the ever-presence of nuns in everyday life, as her favourite for the year.

The Trauma Cleaner, by Sarah Krasnostein. This biography looks at the subject of trauma, from the work of Sandra Pankhurst, who not only cleans up after the most gruesome of incidents frequently offering a sympathetic ear to victims, and asks questions about the impacts of trauma. Fiona said the writer shines a particular light on hoarders and what leads people to hoard. But there’s plenty more too.

Anaesthesia, by Kate Cole-Adams. This Australian journalist worked for Melbourne’s Age newspaper and brings her inquisitive and explanatory skills to a subject little-understood, even by the anaesthetists themselves. It looks at the development of anaesthetics, the bizarre experiments, the maverick professionals, and that most widespread of fears, waking up during surgery. The author did much of her research in anticipation of her own encounter with the mystery gases for spinal surgery.





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Stairways to Heaven


The stunning Rani-Ki-Vav in Gujarat.

While I appreciate the  gift of modern plumbing my gratitude springs from the sheer comfort and convenience of luxuries such as turn-of-the-tap running water and flushing loos.  Beauty is not in the equation.  That wasn’t the story 1000 years ago when stepwells emerged to solve the water woes of India’s desert regions, particularly in Rajastan and Gujarat. No holes in the ground to catch the run off, these stepwells brought glory to their financiers, builders and deities through architectural, engineering and artistic brilliance. Many must have taken years and an army of workers and craftsmen to construct.

IMG_6067 2 The exquisite beauty emerging from centuries of Saraswati River silt.  

Intricate carving decorating the Rani-Ki-Vav

Stepwells –  baori in Hindi and Vav in Gujarati – are unique to the Indian subcontinent. While their primary role was to bring a reliable supply of water to people and animals, the vital life-sustaining properties of water also gave them an important function in the performance of rites and rituals. In Hindu mythology water has a special significance as a boundary between the subterranean, celestial and earthly worlds bestowing the wells with religious significance. Hence their intricate and exquisite artistry.


Early morning ablutions at the ghat – the inspiration for stepwells. 

Apart from being structures of great beauty the wells were supremely engineered with stone steps in elaborate geometric patterns leading visitors down many levels to the waters edge. The designers drew their inspiration from the structure of ghats – long, shallow stairs and landings along muddy river banks – which allowed locals and trade route travellers to access the water for clothes washing, bathing and religious purposes. The wells were often built within proximity to temples emphasising their spiritual importance.


Chand Baori in Abhaneri.

Serendipity perhaps, but an Indian travel blogger I follow recently wrote a post devoted to step wells. She was curious, given their beauty and historical status, why so many were in bad states of crumbling decay, full of rubbish and stagnant water. Her research suggested they fell into disrepair during the British Raj because the colonisers regarded them as health hazards and potential sources of infection. So most stepwells, including some we visited, harbour ponds of green, murky liquid floating with discarded carton, plastic bags and assorted detritus.




Elaborate Sun Temple complex, Modhera, Gujarat, built in 1026. Don’t drink the water!

But all is not lost. The Rani-ki-Vav in Patan in Gujarat, built in the 11 Century for the widowed Queen of Bhimdev in memory of her husband, on the banks of the Saraswati River, was World Heritage listed in 2014 and last year won the title as India’s cleanest iconic place. The extent and beauty of the well was revealed by Archeological Survey of India excavations from the 1960s after being submerged for centuries, the victim of monsoonal mountains of silt which had washed down the river. Another of the Bhimdev dynasty’s stepwells is found at Modhera, also in Gujarat, as part of an elaborate Sun Temple complex built in 1026AD.

The earliest stepwells date to about 550 AD, with over 3000 in Gujarat and Rajasthan. The town of Bundi, roughly midway between Udaipur and Jaipur, alone has over 50. Although many wells have fallen into disrepair, and are boarded off, hundreds remain. We saw examples of various sizes and intricacy, and states of repair, sadly many beyond redemption. Others are in the hands of the archeologists, the Chand Baori in Abhaneri in Rajasthan one of the most impressive and visually spectacular.  A deep, four-sided structure with an commanding temple on one face, its walls step down 13 stories to a depth of over 30 metres. The well and an adjoining temple, dedicated to Hashat Mata, the Goddess of Joy and Happiness, date back to the 10th century.  Both the well and temple have broken sculptures marked and ready to be returned to former glories, a treat in store for both the people of India and overseas travellers to the sub-continent.  Let’s hope the end results could match the description of a stepwell visited by mid-19th Century French world traveller Louis Rousselet: “….water covered with lotuses in flower, amid which thousands of aquatic birds are sporting”.

Stone sculptures waiting for restoration, Chand Baori 





It’s a wrap


That big fashion “thing”, zhuzhing a scarf  with panache, has never been my forte.  But having the right touch adjusting a scarf is nothing compared to the artistry of turban tying, a practice executed with ease routinely by millions of Indian men.


Some of the turban styles found in Gujarat. 

Made from the simplest cottons to the richest brocaded and bejewelled silks, from plain colours to the most dazzling of patterns and hues, turbans can be of religious significance, or reflect identity, origin, status, or culture. Different regions have their own style. In Rajasthan they feature a little peak at the front and a long “tail” at the back. A sheep-herder’s headwear obviously differs markedly from that of a mararajah. Turban colours can signify a purpose: saffron, the colour of bravery, might be worn at a rally; pink signifies spring; navy blue war and service. For the Sikhs the turban has religious significance. While turbans are worn almost exclusively by men, Sikh women can wear them too. IMG_5577

The Royal Palace in Gondal opens a window into the splendour of earlier regal times with fascinating collections including a sumptuous display of turbans from across India’s many former territorial regions. Of particular interest is a replica of the luxuriant headwear of the builder of the magnificent Taj Mahal, renowned Mogul Emperor Shah Jehan, who reigned from 1627 to 1658. As befits such an exalted figure the richly brocaded piece drips with pearls and precious stones.

On our travels through Gujarat we were fortunate to have the cultural services of the delightful Durga Singh-ji, a Thakur, or nobleman in his native Rajasthan. He lamented the gradual loss of the art of turban tying in modern-day India but showed us that he had lost none of his expertise, masterfully twisting and twirling some seven meters of sunny orange and yellow patterned fabric into the top-knot and tailed Rajasthan style. Durga-ji explained that in earlier times some nine metres of fabric would be used, usually beautiful quality cotton, georgette or silk. In the past, for the everyday turban-wearer, the elaborate headpiece was almost like a best friend: it protected from the sun and wind; if the wearer was lost his colourful headpiece made him easy to spot; it could be rolled up into a pillow at night; or could be used as a fly or mosquito  net; a flick over the face would render the wearer incognito; all that fabric was a perfect rope to pull water from a well in dry times; for those wounded in battle it was a bandage; and in a fight it protected like a helmet.

Three cheers for the turban!



Change agent


The revered Mahatma in peaceful contemplation on the lawns at Sabarmati Ashram. 


An ashram visitor takes a leaf out of his guru’s book.

It’s not surprising that one of the most serene places in Ahmedabad is the ashram founded by the revered Mohandas Gandhi – the Mahatama (Great Soul) or Bapu (Father). In contrast to the outside hustle and bustle, colour and commotion, the ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati River opens to green lawns, sandy quadrangles, low-slung, simple, airy bungalows and shady trees. Visitors stroll at ease around the grounds and museum, taking in the so-familiar images and props of the Mahatma – his walking staff, spinning wheel and displays illuminating his innumerable familiar exhortations captured in handwriting and print.


Bapu’s famous staff and spinning wheel. 


Gandhi’s desk; the view from the window.

Mohandas Gandhi was a native Gujurati, born to a middle class family. He studied law in the United Kingdom, returned to India a qualified barrister then was offered a job in South Africa. The racial prejudice he encountered in South Africa spurred him not only to return to India but develop his philosophies. Prime among these was the removal of the British from India and the non-violent methods by which this might be achieved. The peaceful atmosphere of Sabarmati Ashram, established on 17 June 1918 – 100 years ago last weekend –  was the perfect place to contemplate peaceful pathways to change. The venerated Father of the Nation and his wife Kasturba stayed at Sabarmati Ashram for over a decade. It was from here that he began his famous march across India, defied the salt tax and urged his countrymen to spin their own simple “khadi” cloth to sideline the need for British  manufactured textiles.


India gained its independence from Britain in August 1947 but, within a year, the beloved Gandhi was dead, cruelly assassinated by a Hindu devotee who was wrongly convinced that the Mahatma was to blame for the partition of the new nation into (roughly) Hindu India and Moslem Pakistan. Relations between the neighbours – and once peaceful co-inhabiters of the one country – have grown increasingly hostile with each passing decade. Hardly the kind of change that Gandhi had envisaged.


Words of the Guru. 



Ashram signage (left); Gandhi’s signature in numerous languages.


The city that Ahmed built



Ahmed Shah I tomb.

The locale suffix abad attaches itself to cities across Iran, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan and the Indian sub-continent. It’s a strong reminder of the influence that the ancient superpower of Persia had on its neighbours. -Abad derives from the Persian meaning “cultivated place” and, according to that go-to source Wikipedia, commonly is added to the name of a city’s founder or patron. Such is the case with the old capital, and largest city, of Gujarat State, Ahmedabad. Or Amdavad as it’s known in the local dialect. The suffix emphasises an essential aspect of Ahmedabad’s personality:  it’s Moghul and Muslim roots.


Ahmed Shah I Mosque. 

Ahmedabad was established in 1411 by an early Muzaffarid Sultan of Gujarat, Ahmed Shah I. He chose a site along the banks of the impressive Sabarmati River which begins life in the hills of Rajasthan then meanders across Gujarat for about 400 kms, feeding on monsoon waters until it reaches the Arabian Gulf. He named the city for himself,  his spiritual advisor, and two other worthy Ahmeds of his acquaintance. During the almost-200-year Muzaffarid reign, Ahmedabad blossomed into one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world, graced with a distinctive architectural style encouraged by the sultans that blended Islamic elements with Gujarat’s indigenous Hindu and Jain traditions. Gujarat’s Islamic style was the forerunner of  elements found in Mughal architecture including ornate mihrabs and minarets, perforated screens  of carved stone and cupola-topped pavilions. Many centuries later the banks of the Sabarmati in Ahmedabad were to become the site of one of the Mahatma Gandhi’s ashrams.


Ahmedabad’s elegant Stock Exchange, India’s second oldest. 

Ahmedabad assumed  the capital mantle of Gujarat State when the new nation of India was created in 1948. Then in 1970 the honours went to Gandinagar further up the Sabarmati, though the High Court remained in Ahmedabad.  But significant immovable reminders remain including Ahmed Shah’s mosque, built in 1414, the oldest in the city, and his tomb.  The latter also houses the tombs of his son, Muhammed Shah II and grandson Qutub-ud-din.



From little things…… Ahmedabad is now a city of over 7 million and makes it onto lists of the 20 fastest-growing cities in the world. Being close to Mumbai, the old Bombay, the city benefitted from its early commercial significance. The decorative Stock Exchange, built in the mid-1800s, is India’s second oldest. As India’s sixth largest city it is an important industrial and economic hub, houses many educational and research institutions, and flourishing heavy and chemical industries. The name Adani, as instantly recognised in Ahmedabad as Australia, has its corporate headquarters there.


For all its bustling modernity one of the most charming parts of Ahmedabad is Ahmed Shah’s old city.  Tourists happily avail themselves of early-morning walks around the area before the tumult of the day overtakes. Reminders of an ornate and more elegant past can be gleaned from the tumble-down backstreets where the influence of British architecture also survives. Happily, as in other cities around the world, past beauty is being restored in many places.


Young Jain nuns going to early morning devotions. 

Beautiful Jain temple.