The Kavad of a Sacred Geometer


Suzanne Wind Gaskell has hit one out of the park on this exhibit at Wesleyan University. She’s built and illustrated the Kavad of a Sacred Geometer, a study of the geometry and training of a traditional, non-literate artisan in a mathematical tradition. I did not hear her talk, unfortunately, but this object is an occult and esoteric masterwork, as well as being a mathematical wonder.

A Kavad, for reference, is a storyteller’s box or shrine from India or Pakistan. It’s a small box, in this case somewhat smaller than a portable sewing machine case, that has a number of doors, drawers and compartments. In a traditional kavad, these panels are illustrated with scenes and characters from a storyteller’s repertoire. By degrees, the storyteller would open the box to an audience, and the audience members in appreciation would put money in the kavad’s bottom drawer. Once fully opened, the kavad could be a shrine of the Rig Veda or the Upanishads, a life of Muhammad or some Islamic saints.

Ms. Gaskell has taken this form — the kavad, for a non-literate storyteller to explain epic tales to a largely non-literate audience — and created a mathematical treatise. The kavad she’s designed and built is covered inside and out with mathematical proofs and complex geometric constructions; the money drawer is filled with almost-talismanic painted tiles showing traditional floor layouts and iterative techniques of geometrical layout. The inside panels explain points, lines, and circles, the vescia piscis and more. The innermost compartments show the relationship between a vibrating string and musical notation, and contain two dimensional and three dimensional explanations of the five platonic solids. Panels on the back and top demonstrate how the one side of a polygon iterates from a triangle to a square to a pentagon, all the way out to a decagon.

It’s singularly awesome. Awesome in the old sense of the word, “struck down or filled by a sense of awe”.

And of course, I want to build one. Because this is a storyteller’s tool par excellence, a simple cube that, when opened, reveals itself to be no less than a shrine of the building blocks of the universe. Figuring out what to put into a kavad, and figuring out how to build one, represents a deep mastery of many subtle and powerful matters.

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  1. […] So often (usually because they’re starting the work the night before it’s due), our students don’t do their best work, because we haven’t given them the opportunity to imagine their results turning out several different ways.  This is a potential problem. Actually, no.  IT IS A PROBLEM, because I don’t know of any project these days where the first draft of an idea is good enough.  (Ok, maybe this blog, but that’s it). I could build the Kavad in wood that I built in paper, right now.  It would be terrible and ugly, partly because I’m a bad carpenter, and partly because I don’t have a clear idea of what kind of story I want to tell, as Susanne Wind Gaskell did. […]

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