ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

Travels in Time - Praha

Praha. A name. An idea. A vision in blue, grey and orange. Cities as we all know are spaces we inhabit, physically, but often, far more, in our minds. I had never been to Praha before the last week of December 2013, but had wanted to from as long as I can remember. The reasons were many, and as with these things, predictably varied. Growing up in a journalist- academic ‘communist’ family, contact with the erstwhile socialist countries was not unusual. The exposure, however, was often interesting, and now when I look back, unexpected.

For me the most abiding memory from that time is actually an introduction to the rather high cultural attributes of this part of the world  - the Franz Kafka whom I devoured without quite understanding (and therefore must re-read), and Milan Kundera whom I adored (and still do), but also Ivan Klima, Jaroslav Hasek, Bohumil Hrabal and more recently, the quirky Michal Viewegh. Over the years I heard Dvorak and Smetana, encountered Mucha’s Art Nouveau intervention, saw films made by Milos Forman (and by others whose names I now forget).

 

Books are strange and wonderful ways of travelling – through spaces, times and other people’s lives. They also conjure up places in ways that rarely resemble the images in our minds. Funny though how our older impressions mutate, sometimes dissolve after encountering the actuality of lived spaces. Yet Praha continues to be, despite its dispelling images of Kundera induced modernity from my mind, magical and lovely. In a week when I was unabashedly touristy, I started my little trip at the oldest ‘settlement’ (Vysehrad) of the city where the Czechs first settled, thereby making my small gesture towards history and chronology.  But my curiosity was also fired by the fact that the cemetery had the graves of many greats, including my heroes, Dvorak and Smetana! Moreover it had one of the many glorious panoramic views of a city that makes it look like a slice out of another time, with its sloping orange tiled roofs, and a view of the lovely Vltava, shimmering quietly through the city. If a river has a soul, this one does. And for me it is the Vltava, in its many moods – grand, sombre, gentle, vivacious – that dominates the city. As I crossed the famous Charles Bridge later, a place that looks like a cross between a fairy tale illustration and a movie set, I was struck again by the contrast between the magical fluidity of water and the grand, yet somewhat staid solidity of this most photographed of city bridges.

Until my visit to Praha I had never thought I could be blown away by Baroque grandeur, indeed excess. The streets, the churches, in fact large parts of the grand architecture of the city are Baroque. Yet there is something delightful about the way in which Praha accommodates this grandeur without making it weighty. Undoubtedly, St. Nicholas’s church is exquisite, yet for me what was truly beautiful was the Loreta, a tribute to the Marian cult, with its exquisite shrine to the Virgin. In a way, all of these were a piece with the sumptuous Rudolphinum, and the grand Municipal Hall, where I heard some wonderful chamber music, including Dvorak’s ‘Songs my Mother taught Me’, a much loved piece. Of course, there is an amusing side to the musical repertoire at this time of the year in such highly touristed sites – in that they choose the most popular, and hence predictable pieces (of Dvorak, Mozart, Bach)....but I have no complaints. There's something truly magical about excellent music, in a setting that transports you. Urban legend has it that Mozart felt more welcome in Prague than in Vienna and would run off there to try out his pieces which could then be heard the next day on the streets - people who had heard it would be whistling the tunes, while wandering about. I loved that story - having done similarly - and felt always that it was sacrilege; now am relieved that ‘twas but tradition!

Yet Prague is not merely a series of ‘sites’ – its also a city of art, cafes, food, and conversations. The city is dotted with little galleries with some excellent collections of modern, and contemporary art, but the Alphonse Mucha museum is worth a visit only because it forms such an extraordinary contrast to the one commemorating the other great, Kafka. In all the years when I had seen Mucha’s, and other Art Noveau work, I had never really paid attention to its similarity with Academic Realist art (and its fascination with History). So even as Mucha’s ‘national’ paintbrush invoked a glorious Czech past, which is suitably monumentalized by the museum, the Kafka museum is markedly different. A mixture of aural and visual media, this excellent museum put so much into perspective that had been bothering me. It unfolds a layer of Czech, indeed European history, and anti Semitism which still forms the scarcely discussed part of national histories in this part of the world. Yet what the museum doesn’t do is to make this needlessly exceptional, or use it as a device for undoing collective guilt. Instead it gives us the messy story of Kafka the man, son, writer and lover; inspired equally by anarchism and Mosaic tradition. An observer of life, struggling with his own intensity and dilemmas, and in fact quite insufferably self indulgent in relation to the women in his life.... While the Israeli-American dominated ‘holocaust industry’ irritates me, I must say Jewish history’s painful past in these parts is hard to escape. And seeing the Kafka museum at a time when Indian fascism is spreading its ugly anti Islamic tentacles, was a deeply moving, and enlightening, experience for me.

Alongside, I must say I was, and continue to be, deeply intrigued by the way in which the Czechs wish to project a royal, Christian history as their “past” -  thereby rendering communism as an evil twin of Nazism! Despite wanting to, I never made it to the Museum of Communism (or apparently the museum of the evils thereof, and an account of its collapse). The narrative of ‘freedom’ that now pervades all official sources (of which the tourism industry is a principal promoter) finds its apotheosis in the ‘Lennon wall’ – a riot of graffiti colour in the middle of neoclassical formality. Havel’s ‘velvet revolution’ restored the right of the Czechs to be ”free” – or so the popular narrative goes. In a city that is also intensely commercial, despite retaining an extraordinary character, one wonders what this freedom was for – other than to be a good consumer?

 

As I sat drinking coffee, and sometimes Becherovka, in known (Slavia) and unknown cafes, with beautiful sunshine making the waters shine, while names and images of Praha danced through my mind, I wondered about what made this place special? There was so much I did not understand – especially their royalist nationalism. Yet every encounter I had – on the streets, in cafes, museums, churches, bookstores or indeed in my lovely little hotel in the completely non touristy part of Smichow – I realized that it was the people who made all the difference. Some say that they are a tourist economy and realise the importance of friendliness. But Praha exceeds that. There's courtesy, genuine warmth, and real humour there that cannot be faked. And it is this, through decades of reading, that had drawn me to this magical little city, tucked away in the middle of Europe. And it was this that continues to keep me entranced….

About Author

G. Arunima (arunima@jnu.ac.in) is a historian by training, and teaches at the Centre for Women’s Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has researched and written on different areas of social and cultural history, including family and kinship; aesthetics and visuality; and more recently religion and faith practices.
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