Art History by Gayatri Surendranathan

Art History


“A book ‘manuscript’ should be understood as a form of sacred space: a temple in microcosm, not only imbued with divine presence but also layered with the memories of many generations of users.”

My mother was obsessed
With early Buddhist palm-leaf
Manuscripts, their gilded edges,
Lush, inky script – every morning
She would pore over them, lay them
In a row on her desk and hunch
With a magnifying glass, pencil
Notes on things like richness of color,
Simplicity of line. She measured,
Translated, stopping only to write
Or gulp lukewarm, tannic brew from
The art department coffee machine.

We weren’t good Hindus; she did not
Take us to temples, or teach us
Prayers or tell us any of the stories
She so carefully analyzed in their
Visual form, handling each leafy folio
Like it was a soap bubble, apt to burst.

I don’t think she believed in God,
Or mythology, or an afterlife –
But she was a disciple to something
Holy, her piety spilling over as she
Spent hours in her office, monk-like,
Absorbed equally in the staggeringly
Tiny detailing of the veins on a leaf,
A flower garland round a knot of hair,
And the weight of millennia of
Worshippers, all kneeling as the tomes
Are hoisted out, dusted, an old man
In orange robes begins to chant.

Gayatri Surendranathan
Gayatri Surendranathan was born in Kerala, India and grew up in North Carolina, where she attended UNC Chapel Hill and studied Economics and Creative Writing. A childhood spent both in the American South and at her family’s home in India shaped her interest in writing about sense of place and cultural divides. She now lives in Brooklyn and works in digital media. Her poetry has been published in Cellar Door.

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