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High Ground

Barbara Drake Boehm, Paul and Jill Ruddock Curator, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters

Posted: Friday, April 20, 2012

«In previous posts, we discussed the origins of chess in India centuries ago. For the final post of this blog, we turn to modern-day India, where chess remains as popular as ever.

The city of Banaras (or Varanasi), in Uttar Pradesh, India, is holy to Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. It is sometimes celebrated as the "City of Temples," of "Learning," or of "Lights." Located on the banks of the Ganges, it is also subject to relentless flooding.»

Detail of a Folio from a Shahnama

Raghubir Singh (Indian, 1942–1999). Chess Players, Banaras Floods, 1967, printed 1991. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Cynthia Hazen Polsky Gift, 1991 (1991.1282). © Raghubir Singh

This photograph captures the extraordinary concentration of two men intent on playing chess, notwithstanding the inundation of their city in the floods of 1967. I spoke to my colleague, Navina Haidar, curator in the Department of Islamic Art, who knew the photographer Raghubir Singh well. She particularly likes this photograph, part of a series about the Ganges River, because of the way, as she says, "There are authentic, intelligent, sweet, tough, and robust elements all mixed up." Looking closely, we see that the lapping floodwaters are just one of the discomforts that these steadfast players choose to disregard as they focus on their game.

The men sit on wood planks, softened only by the covering of a folded and frayed brownish cloth. The chessboard in turn rests on the cloth, but its checkered surface, perhaps of leather or paper over wood, has torn in the middle. Behind them is what appears to be graffiti, but Navina tells me that it is likely part of a shop sign written in Devanagari script. While the Kings and Queens on the board are particularly elegant in form, apparently of carved and painted wood, the ensemble does not constitute a single set. The men have cobbled together the pieces that they needed for their match, but at least three are replacements—the stubbier, dark ones at position h6, g6 and d5.

I asked a chess collector whose acquaintance I made when he came to visit The Game of Kings to comment on the progress of the game. He charted the diagram below and offers the following explanation:

Chess Game Diagram

It appears as though Black (the player at the left) has just captured White's Rook on a1 with his Queen. Both players are staring at that section of the board. I believe it is White's move, and he is now lost, due to the loss of his Rook (he appears to be down a Pawn as well), but meanwhile his Knight on b1 is threatened. His only move to save it is Knight to c3. However, Black could then play Pawn on d5 to d4, attacking the Knight, and also opening the diagonal, so that his Bishop on b7 is threatening the Rook on h1. White has no saving move, so he will lose even more material. Black is clearly winning.

We might have guessed the result even without looking at the board: The man at the left is on ever so slightly higher ground. By contrast, the plank under the player at the right is partly submerged, his foot dips in the water, and his blue shorts are wet.

As part of Checkmate, a 2010 BBC Radio series on chess, author Anuradha Roy spoke of Raghubir Singh's powerful photograph. For her, the image is emblematic of the "addictiveness of chess and the difficulty of finding a quiet place for a game in a country as crowded as India," noting, "If you set up a board for two to play, there will soon be another ten commenting, interrupting, animated." While I agree to some extent with that assessment, it seems to me there is something more profound about this image. As we have seen from Lewis, to Damascus, to Banaras, through the magic of the game, a chessboard becomes its own kind of high ground, a purely imaginary world in which the players become masters of their own fate.

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About the Author

Barbara Drake Boehm is the Paul and Jill Ruddock Curator in the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters.

About this Blog

This blog accompanied the special exhibition The Game of Kings: Medieval Ivory Chessmen from the Isle of Lewis, on view at The Cloisters November 15, 2011–April 22, 2012.