The standard advice you are given when you go abroad is, “Don’t convert.” Not to another faith, no. What they mean is, “Don’t convert dollars/ euros/ whatever currency into rupees or you will never buy anything, never eat anything and come back half-starved and sorry you went.” I heard that the first time I went abroad and I thought it made great sense until I was standing in Hyde Park and was confronted with the price of a hot dog. It was 2.80 pounds. Even before I wanted to I was multiplying and coming up with the gobstopping realisation that I could eat five unlimited free thalis (vegetarian but no less delightful) for that much money. I went hungry.
Friday night, I was planning what I should be doing on Saturday in Boston which is where I found myself. I like to go to the big museum in the big city and so I found the Museum of Fine Arts. I checked the timings and routes and what I should see, and then I checked the price of admission. It was $25.
Again, without even wanting to, I was calculating. That was 01,665 plus change. Of course, I was still going to go to the museum, but my plans changed radically. Now the museum was not one of the stops that I was going to make on the way, it was the stop of the day. I would get there at 10am when the museum opened and I would stay there until 5pm when it closed. If I had planned it a little better, I would have gone between Wednesday and Friday when it is open up to 10pm.
But then I saw ‘Admission Free’. Oh, I thought, so sensible. They’ve changed their minds. My pace quickened for ‘free’ means ‘lines’, but there were none outside the museum and the poster read: ‘Members Admission Free’ only the word ‘members’ was very small.
Ha. American advertising. Once inside, I noted that the museum also had an audio guide ($6) but in for a penny, in for $31, why not? I thought. And the woman at the counter handed me my ticket and a free ticket for admission to the museum at any time in the next ten days. (That would be a Wednesday or a Thursday, I thought.)
But once you’re inside a museum and you’re standing in front of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Deer Skull with Pedernal and Mary Cassatt’s The Tea, you stop thinking about the money involved. You’re just glad to be in the presence of these art works.
Does the presence count? We know it does: a young woman in a summer frock does a little hop-skip-jump of excitement in front of Renoir’s Dance at Bougival. I would have skipped a little too in front of an Assyrian frieze of a guardian spirit pollinating palm trees/ purifying palm trees—scholars have not decided. Had I not been constrained by who I am, I would have prayed in a room constructed as if it were a chapel where a mural of Christ in Romanesque splendour was detached from a medieval chapel in Europe and sprayed with a mixture of lime and Parmesan cheese and brought back to the New World. And I would have wept in front of the simple beauty of Constantin Meunier’s Dock Worker and Edgar Degas’s Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, both so beautiful and proud in what they do rather than in what they are.
There was a point when I sat down and thought: too much, too much. My fault, of course, for trying to cram it all in. Our fault, of course, for who would come to a place and see just a few art works. We like the idea of four lakh art works. We want to know there’s so much here. We want to stroll through some galleries only taking in the merest of details, the sense impressions of a gypsum water bowl in the shape of a crouching hare or a 14th-century aquamanile (a jug with which to wash one’s hands) in the form of Samson and the lion. It is our right to ignore and it is our right to stop and talk to, to enter into conversation with, to explain to each other.
So then it is time to sit on the floor and stare up at Anne Lindberg’s site-specific installation, just thread and staples, so fine and so subtle that it is almost not there. I sit and I watch it ripple and change, not because it is changing, but because my eyes are changing, I am changing.
What price does one put on that?
Jerry Pinto is a reluctant traveller with itchy feet.