By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Friday, December 21, 2012

Mystery Of The Missing Magyars

When I started writing a weekly column in the Hindustann Times Evening News in 1973 under the playful title Delhiberations, the Editor and I had visualized it as a purely humorous running commentary on whatever was happening or not happening in the cosmopolitan Capital of India. 
But New Delhi, with its diplomatic corps and other international connections, had many open windows through which one could obtain close views of life in foreign countries, particularly in artistic and cultural contexts; and I found it exciting to enlarge the scope of my column by often commenting on my impressions of alien environments, And sometimes I even gained amazingly clear insights into very distant and unfamiliar settings. 
The following comments on a Hungarian art exhibition (which was apparently on a world tour) were meant only as the response of a fairly ignorant foreigner living far away from Hungary. But I did somehow stumble on the significant fact that this collection of historic dimensions did not truly reflect the social, cultural and demographic character of Magyarland -- and also identified the main reasons why this was so!
Evening News, New Delhi
26 Oct. 1986

Impressions of Hungary

For quite some time I hadn't gone to see any art exhibition, for want of interest as well as time. But when I saw a notice that there would be an exhibition of 100 years of Hungarian paintings in the National Gallery of Modern Art, I couldn't resist the idea, and I found the time to go and take a look.

Hungary has always fascinated me, ever since I saw a photograph called 'Hungarian cafe' in a book entitled 'Hundred Best Photographs of the World', which my father had bought in 1940 when I was a little boy. 
The black-and-white picture showed some typical Magyar men with chiselled faces, high cheekbones and drooping moustaches, playing cards in what was described as a characteristic cafe scene in Hungary. The milieu had powerful romantic appeal. Though I lost the book long ago, this picture has never faded from my memory.

In 1949 or '50 I saw a Hungarian movie called Mrs. Dery, in what was perhaps the first-ever international film festival held in Madras. I don't recall the details of the film, but I do remember that it reinforced my fascination for Hungary.

And whenever I tuned to Radio Budapest in my student days (with a fabulous superheterodyne wireless set made in England which my father had bought before the second world war), I was thrilled to hear the dashing sounds of the Hungarian March, which had been adopted by the radio station as its signature tune.

In 1958 I bought a few LP records for the first time in my life, and one of them was an album of Hungarian gypsy music known as Czardas and Hora. Though I gave this disc away to a friend of mine ten years later, I've never forgotten the whirling and accelerating dance tunes, which I can hum or whistle in a fashion even today.

I had an opportunity to visit Budapest for a few days in 1980, and the first thing I did after checking in at my hotel was to rush to the nearest roadside cafe (known as 'eszpresso').
The place was as intriguing as I had hoped it would be. There were small, red-topped round tables on which stood bulky bottles of beer with the labels 'Hongaria' and 'Budapest'. There were tall, pretty waitresses wearing black aprons and knee-high leather boots.

Among the people who sat round the tables I found some men with chiselled faces, high cheekbones and drooping moustaches, confirming the image of Magyar features entrenched in my mind. And I saw many more of them every day during my stay in Budapest -- in the tramcars and busses, in the parks and shops... everywhere.

Of course, I was equally impressed by the beautiful vistas of the city, with its historic castles and Danube bridges. and the views of and from the hills of Buda.
* * *

When I thought of seeing the exhibition of Hungarian paintings, all these memories came flooding into my mind, and I went with great expectations of seeing a lot of gypsy dancers and musicians, cafes and castles, and men with gaunt Magyar faces.

There was, however, a surprise in store for me. My first impression was that I must have gone to the wrong place, because it looked like an exhibition of paintings by West European artists. 
On show were 65 paintings dating from 1935 to 1971, by 52 Hungarian masters, from the collection of the Hungarian National Gallery. I looked and looked for something which would be distinctly evocative of Hungary, but couldn't easily succeed.

The portraits looked either Oriental or West European. The mountains could have been in Switzerland or Germany. Some of the woodlands resembled the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. And the high-life scenes looked very, very French indeed.

Not a single Magyar face could I spot among all those works -- no chiselled features, no high cheekbones, no drooping moustaches! A solitary painting of a Hungarian folk dance (1858) showed a man who actually looked like Tippu Sultan!

And not a single picture showed a Magyar cafe, which is so much a part of urban Hungarian life and culture. Nor did a single view of beautiful Budapest figure in this collection. The only things which evoked Hungary in my mind to some extent were a few 19th-century paintings showing a farm, a village and a couple of gypsy camps.

I couldn't understand the reason for this at all, till I carefully went through the excellent catalogue provided by the National Gallery of Modern Art.

The bio-data of the 52 painters featured in the exhibition showed that most of them had their roots in Western Europe or Austria, and not in Hungary at all. They had either studied art or stayed for a long time in Munich, Paris or Vienna, or some other places in France, Germany ot Italy.

I am not an authority on art, and I don't know what exactly are the criteria by which a representative collection of a country's paintings must be evaluated. All I can say is, I've seen and felt more of authentic Hungary in that single photograph which had fascinated me when I was a little boy, than in this whole collection of more than a century of paintings by the leading artists of Hungary!

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