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Zan Thompson

On an Afternoon's Passage to India

January 12, 1986|ZAN THOMPSON

The drawing is done on a small palm frond, each line precise as a steel engraving. It's a sketch of a potentate riding in a palanquin borne by four servants. Each figure has a debonairly curled mustache bracketing his mouth. When the calligrapher finished the panel, he presented it to me. He had the same gracious manner that was worn like a badge of office by everyone connected with India--a Festival of Science. It's a $22-million exhibit, opening a hospitable window onto 2,000 years of Indian accomplishment, at the California Museum of Science and Industry in Exposition Park.

On Wednesday, the artisans and scientists will pack up their gold thread, attars and unguents, as well as their model space satellites and move to Portland, Ore., for three months. Then they go to Seattle for three more.

Indira Gandhi, the late prime minister of India, was the first to decide that an exhibit on the richness of her country should be shown to those of us who don't know any more about India than we saw at the movies in "Gunga Din" on Saturday afternoons.

The exhibit will be taken back to India in mid-1986 and, in the meantime, a lot of us who don't go beyond the "Just So Stories" will absorb a great deal of knowledge and lore.

The exhibit shows Indian mathematical knowledge. Ten thousand years ago, they developed the theories of cube and square roots, contributions which have caused the souls of math students of my shaky credentials to quail ever since.

Craftsmen encircled the room at the museum, each man working in quiet concentration at the skill he had received from his forefathers. Shaikh Shamin Uddin displayed his embroidery. Some of his works are 8x10 feet. One is an upright figure of Moses and the burning bush. The shadings of the hundreds of bright colors of silk make it look like the most detailed oil painting. The border, almost a foot wide, is sewn with precious and semi-precious stones.

Some of the embroideries are three-dimensional, the silk threads used in such abundance that the highest sections of the picture stand out more than an inch from the canvas. The peacock, the national bird of India, stands in iridescent splendor.

K. Subba Rao works in inlaid woods. One huge panel of a Bengal tiger looks as if the magnificent beast could step off the wall. Each piece is painstakingly carved to fit the next piece. Some of the woods Rao uses are teak, rosewood, sandalwood, black rosewood, tamarind wood, blue ash and blackberry. Neither he nor his confederates use dye of any kind, and the pieces of work are fitted together like fine jewelry.

A display of perfume using the same ingredients--flowers, herbs and spices--of the scent makers in the 5th Century, is shown with the round flasks used in their distilling.

In the 16th Century, a family named Singh studied the art of enameling on gold, silver and other metals. Now the Singhs' present generations, father and son, are sitting at the exhibit creating works of art. One delightful example is a tiny flame-red horse, a chess piece.

"From the windmill to the nuclear reactor, India tries to take care of its own energy needs. Self-sufficiency in oil production is now in sight." This is the proud statement made by the energy department of India.

Exhibit literature also says that there is no longer a shortage of food, that India feeds itself.

The high-tech exhibits stand side by side with the art of solapith- , the art of carving a wood so light it can hardly be felt in the hand. The solapith carvings look like the finest lace.

Communications and transportation are shown in paneled pillars. It's as if the United States presented an exhibit of space orbiters side by side with fine quilts from West Virginia and hand-crocheted lace alongside a Jet Propulsion Laboratory showing. India--A Festival of Science has brought us the heart and soul and mind of the country, the aspirations and the heritage.

One of the exhibits that drew a circle of women was of tandoor ovens. The oven is round and lined with clay, with the fire built down inside the globe. The chef shapes a ball of dough and then quickly slaps it against the inside of the oven. Often he puts in different fillings. He let me try one with chicken, celery, onion and herbs. The bread is called nan and is like pita bread.

There are costumes and jewelry from the Mogul period, the dresses made of gold thread.

My guide was Asha Anan, a young Indian woman who grew up in New Delhi. She is married to the head of the physiology department at California State University, Long Beach. They met in their native country. Asha went to New Delhi University and then to Punjab University for her master's in journalism.

Asha loves her country and explains it well. She says the Northerners are bread and chicken eaters and the Southerners eat fish and rice as staples. There is a great deal of shrimp and seafood.

"The United States has everything to offer. It is the land of milk and honey," Asha said. "Indians who come here have the best of both worlds. The people who come are the cream of the crop. They can take the risk. Most are from wealthy families and we want to prove to ourselves that we have done the right thing."

Asha is soft-spoken and poised and says working for the exhibit has been a rich experience.

The closing ceremonies of the exhibit will be tonight and will be $30 a person. That's exhibits, dancing, jewelry and authentically zesty and hearty hors d'oeuvres. I had lunch at the exhibit and burned with a fine blue flame for the rest of the afternoon.

Regular daytime admission is $2 for adults and $1 for children. The exhibit closes Wednesday. It's a window into India covered with fretwork, and the breeze carries herbs and spices that Columbus sought.

I don't know if I went on the wrong day, or what. I looked all afternoon and didn't see Gary Cooper or Sam Jaffe.

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