Of India and Ceramics

The ultimate image of India. In Hindi, it's pronounced "Taj Mehl".

I’ve authored a novel, Shakespeare Loves Bollywood (its sequel, Shakespeare Loves Monsoon, is in its editing phase), so when I spotted a book called 33rd Wife of a Maharajah at my local university’s library, I checked it out.

There are no clear dates in the book, but the author refers to Richard Nixon as president, so she must have traveled during the early 1970s, a time of great surge in India as its industries ramped up production and things of the West became less taboo – though customs and mores were nearly as distinct from each other as in, say, 1920. (That’s still true of many of India’s villages, though its cities have become more Western each year since the mid-1990s.)

The purpose of Wood’s trip was a US Information Service-sponsored tour with her own ceramics to various sites, so she could display her work (noted especially for its glazes) and see as much of India as her guides would allow. What they permitted varied, so her book is a tale of travel ups and downs, protecting her ceramics from breakage, arguing for more liberty (in a country where a woman alone was subject to casual insult), and meeting people – more amazingly for an American woman of that time, treating them all alike – from nearly every caste.

She also fell in love, with an Indian man she does not name. At the end of the book, the two part at his insistence that she must return to the freer life she’s built for herself in Ojai, California.

But what’s truly wonderful about Wood’s months-long journey is her age. She was born in 1893, which would make her nearly 70 when she flew to India. Throughout her travels she routinely told people she was twenty years younger, since “that’s how I felt” – and looked, too. She lived a long life (dying at 105) full of artistic work and encounters – Wood trained as an actress in pre-World War I Paris, and was known as the “Mama of Dada” – and served as an inspiration for the Titanic role of 101-year-old Rose.

These days, it’s not uncommon for Americans over 65 to travel. In fact, they’re often the ones who have money and leisure to do so. But for Beatrice Wood to undertake that much travel, risking illness and infection, with such infectious joie de vivre, in the early 1970s – fabulous!

I hope to have as much gumption at that age, and as good a reason to go . . ..


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