flights of fancy

Sighing over the inked gorgeousness of the Kalij Pheasants, their bijoux bandit look on account of the ruby shadowing their eye, I finally gave up pretending to be a bird enthusiast and admitted that I’m more a whimsical aesthete.

Each time I see a bird (most strikingly in breeding plumage!), I only peripherally notice how its supercilium/crest/barring/rump/mandible might distinguish it from the female or link it to another in its species; instead, I imagine the sari gorgeousness s/he can translate into.

Sarus Cranes, striking in their sindoor-capped minimalism, always put me in mind of the red-bordered white fields in the lal paads on Dashami when red is such power tethered in such lightness.

A Benarsi play of dhoop-chhaon whenever I watch an Indian Roller take wing, its azure underwing darkening into an ultraviolet, uplifting the wheatish shading in its body and the fallowed farm.

I dream of Kanjivarams when I see the Bronze Winged Jacana, fascinated by how that swamp thing’s body turns a baingani bronzed gold depending on the light, and an amethyst-emerald accent perks its being however dull the light… but only after I’ve stopped wondering about how the jacanas walk on water! Traditional Kanjis, I could swear, mirror the Pheasant Tailed Jacanas’ cinnamon vibrance – brown touched mustard, shot through with gold accented maroon, illumined as if from within.

Seeing a Peacock, well, just being resplendently a Peacock even if it’s perching on a water tank, the sun deepening its blues and emeralds, how can one not think of the Paithani’s double-shaded luster? And, as it struts its booty, I can’t but think of the Himroo and its back-to-front unity of design – a lesson in faultless needlework that Sister Mary rapped into our knuckles on Thursday afternoons in the Patna convent.

I but see the Great Indian Hornbill and think of the bold, defining patterns of the Bomkai and see the Orange-Headed Thrush in Batik saris where the black has bled into the cracked colours, a meme of the thrush’s tear-streaked runny kajal look.

The metallic brilliance of the Sunbirds – as if stars threw down their spears – is surely reflected in the shimmering weaves of a Chanderi? Etched into my mind’s eye is that late afternoon stroll in Neora Valley when we’d just turned a bend in the mountain and walked into… a flock of Mrs. Gould’s Sunbirds flitting drunkenly, acrobatically, midst flowering bushes; their unexpected choreography of rainbow colours catching the sun, the moment was incandescent!

Kingfishers – an electrical storm! These birds that make you see how after the flood all the colours came out, held-breath glinting moments when ‘twas light were a benediction, I think of as a dazzling iridescence of ari-embroidered georgette saris my mother wore to college.

Perhaps among the most quixotic birds, Frogmouths, which assume the shape of a dry leaf as camouflage, find their perfect nature transposed in ingenious patterns of the Bandhej; a Bandhej sari in madder and brown will effortlessly mimic their pointillist symmetry. If you look steadily enough at Bandhej saris, you may also see how readily they will frame the fearful symmetry of Owls too.

An unexpected clear viewing of the Malabar Trogon in Goa one late afternoon, has got me thinking how chequered gamchha saris will match its unusual and compelling graphic play of crimson, black, white, blue and olive.

Barbets, those rougish, whiskered birds who love to scold my Jack’s waywardness, I think I’ll find them in a pirate patch sari that I’d come back with if I were foolish enough to play Holi in one!

And woodpeckers and hoopoes who always gladden my heart – perhaps it’s how they rock the mooch! – I envision them in the fluid geometry of the Patola and the Sambalpuri Ikat. It’s these saris that pick up the quirky beauty of the Goldenback, the Heart-Spotted, the Pygmy, the Yellownape, the Red-bellied, the Red-capped, the Grey-backed, the White-Bellied… Or even an Ajrakh sari – odd details in an expanding symmetry, like a fractal vision of the ways of the world.

The Black Bulbul with its shiuli-orange beak, the Himalyan with its cheeky yellow vent, the Flame-throated looking like it has swallowed the sun and is alive in its burn – I tend to imagine their solid colour-anchored being transferred into the rough-hewn beauty Bhagalpuri Tussars.

The dreamy ivory tangails and dhakais I remember my grandmothers in are an apotheosis of the pied elegance of the Bar-headed Geese that fly with the moon on their wings, flying over the Himalayan range on their journey between Central Asia and India, at extreme altitudes in air so thin there is less than 10% of the oxygen found at sea level! Grace and toughness – the sari and the bird – as fluid as a U2 song that finds beauty in everything.

Even as I daydream about such fantastic winged, woven – poetic – transmogrification, reflecting too on the increasingly tenuous survival of the devalued ecosystems of weavers and birds, I send out a prayer. Hopkins’ verse in my ear, resonant and relevant, as it never was when I struggled with the religious overtones as a literature student. Less cocky, less quick to judge (still agnostic though!), I now listen to the joyful celebration it really is:

Glory be to God for dappled things –

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.


All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.


The one bird that continues to elude a sari-indulgence is the Long-tailed Broadbill. Born of a moment of lightness and excess, this bird’s comic, whimsical psychedelia belongs on The Yellow Submarine album cover for sure!



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