Archive for June 2016

Amsterdam's Red Light District

Even if you know absolutely zilch about Amsterdam, you would have heard about its Red Light District. De Wallen or De Walletjes is one of the most famous tourist attractions of the city. Tourists come here in droves (myself included!) to see women of all nationalities display their 'attractions' in big glass windows illuminated in red light. De Wallen, Singelgebied and Ruysdaelkade, form the Rosse Buurt or red light areas of Amsterdam. 

Prostitution is legal in the Netherlands and was legalised in the year 2000. But it was not always so. A perusal of the country's history indicates that during the Middle Ages (ie 5-15 centuries AD), prostitution was tolerated as a 'necessary evil' but considered to be a dishonourable profession. In the 16th century, the city of Amsterdam started regulating prostitution. Only the police could keep a brothel. According to accounts dating back to 1413, these were confined to two streets in Amsterdam, Pijlsteeg and Halsteeg. Those who practiced prostitution elsewhere in the city were arrested and their clients fined. 

In the 17th century, however, with the decline of the Catholic religion and rise of Protestantism, the city stopped regulating prostitution. It was outlawed and prostitutes were considered 'evil' and having a polluting influence. Moreover, the implementation of anti prostitution laws was weak and and the enforcers preferred to leave brothels alone as long as they did not cause any trouble. 

In the 18th century, with a growing middle class (possibly due to the Industrial Revolution), public attitudes towards prostitution became more rigid, moralistic and conservative.  The working conditions of prostitutes was bad, with many of them living in poverty, being exposed to sexually transmitted diseases and bearing the illegitimate children of their clients. 

In the beginning of the 19th century, when Netherlands was under the rule of King Louis Bonaparte, prostitution was once again regulated to protect soldiers against venereal diseases. Prostitutes were forced to register themselves and undergo mandatory medical examinations. They were provided with a red card which was a sort of work permit. If they were found to be infected with any venereal disease, their red card was taken away and replaced with a white card and prohibited from working until they were free of their disease. 

Later in the 19th century, prostitution came under the purview of the Abolitionist movement (a movement in Western Europe and the Americas to end slavery) that called for the abolition of regulated prostitution in the manner that it was being practiced at the time.  The living conditions of prostitutes continued to be bad or worsen. They were usually under the control of a madam, living under severe debt and with strict control over their mobility. At first the movement targeted only the mandatory health checks for prostitutes but later shifted focus to the exploiters and people who profited from prostitution 

From the late 20th century onwards, a policy of tolerance or gedoogbeleid  was adopted by many local governments. This policy was premised on harm reduction based on the belief that anti prostitution laws would be counter productive and the best way to protect women was to 'tolerate' prostitution. Although prostitution was defined as a legal profession in 1988, it took until the year 2000 for it to move from the limbo of 'tolerance' to getting full legal status. 

The Netherlands is one of the most progressive countries in the world. I recently heard that due to a negligible crime rate, their empty jails are being used to house Syrian refugees! So the way their history, on the issue of prostitution, has evolved, is nothing less than commendable. However, as one of the top three organised crimes in the world, the dark underbelly of this profession is not so easily controlled. The Dutch government has been cracking down and shutting brothels where crime is taking place and I am sure they will have to continue to be alert and active to prevent crime and injustice. 

So what did our trio do on that chilly May evening in De Wallen? After my husband and I picked up our fallen jaws from the pavement and after our eyes had settled back into their sockets, we took a brief tour of the streets of the RLD. I held fast to my husband's hand and hissed a warning of  "Only Looking!" at him. 

I witnessed a gorgeous woman with platinum blonde hair, barge out of the window and threaten to break a man's camera when she caught him photographing her. (Photography is STRICTLY prohibited in the RLD). I looked at the sex toys displayed in shop windows in awe, my mind not comprehending to what use they could be put. I looked askance at a young man (overcome by a smorsgasbord of morality and feminism) when he gawked at one of the girls in the window and said "What a rack!" and then proceeded to negotiate a deal with her for 50 Euro. I smiled at how my two escorts barricaded me against the testosterone driven crowd. I argued that I wanted to visit the museum of prostitution while my husband and his friend dissuaded me. It was only because I could barely feel my toes in the freezing five degree temperature that I gave up the idea. 

I finally came away from the RLD feeling philosophical about the complete commodification of the female form and an economy that is built upon two breasts and a vagina. 

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Museum Magic - Rijksmuseum

Truth be told, I didn't know much about museums in Europe. I knew about the Louvre - of course - Dan Brown made sure of that. But beyond that my knowledge was pretty sketchy. So visiting the many museums that Europe has to offer, was a revelation and an education.

The city of Amsterdam is famed for its canals. It is also home to the Rijksmuseum. Apart from the priceless artefacts housed here, the museum itself is of some antiquity. It was founded in the year 1798 as a means of promoting national unity following the establishment of the Batavian Republic in 1795. In 1800 it first opened its doors in The Hague. In 1808 it moved to Amsterdam on the orders of King Louis Bonaparte. In 1885 it moved to its current location.

The museum displays some priceless artefacts. The most famous are paintings by Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Johanees Vermeer. (Don't worry if these names don't ring bells. The only one I recognised was Rembrandt! But hopefully, you will know more about them after reading this post). Giving below a description of some of the paintings which appealed to me.

The Night Watch, Rembrandt: I knew NOTHING about this painting. When my husband told me we are going to see The Night Watch in Rijksmuseum, I asked him 'what's that'. My shocked husband told me to look it up online. So I did.

Photo source: Deepa's personal collection
The Night Watch is Rembrandt's 1642 painting of the 'Militia Company of District II under the command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq' The Rijksmuseum site informs us that it was his largest and most famous painting. And rightly so. The play of light in the painting is awesome. In the vast expanse of the painting, light has been used cleverly to highlight the main figures of the captain and his lieutenant. An interesting interpretation attached to the painting  I found in Wikipedia says that "the Night Watch is symmetrically divided, firstly to illustrate the union between the Dutch Protestants and the Dutch Catholics, and secondly to evoke the war effort against the Spaniards. For instance, according to Rembrandt's multilayered design, the taller captain (in black) symbolizes the Dutch Protestant leadership, loyally supported by the Dutch Catholics (represented by the shorter lieutenant, in yellow)."

Photo source: Deepa's personal collection
The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer: OK, so I had never heard of this artist (said she shamefaced). Although the painting is titled The Milkmaid, it is actually of a maid working in the kitchen. Which is why the painting is sometimes also called The Kitchen Maid. It depicts a sturdy young woman, wearing clothing of the time, pouring milk from one container into another. Although this is just an everyday scene, there is something mesmerising about it-the way light shines in from the window on the left and illuminates half the woman's face, the young woman's absorption with her task, the foot warmer on the right with the detailing on the tiles. Personally I found this painting even better than The Night Watch (oops! can i say that?!).

My husband and I have jokingly nicknamed these two paintings as 'watchman' (like the security guards in our apartment blocks) and 'paalkaari' (milk maid in Tamil)

Photo source: Rijksmuseum website
The Threatened Swan, Jan Asselijn: Again, knew nichts about the painting and the artist. This was the first painting acquired by the Nationale Kunstgalerij (the forerunner of Rijksmuseum) in 1880. It depicts a swan fiercely defending her nest from a dog. It has been interpreted as a political allegory of Johan De Witt (a very high ranking Dutch official who was assassinated in 1672 ) defending the country from enemies. Wikipedia says that "Three inscriptions had been added: the words "de raad-pensionaris" (the grand pensionary) between the swan's legs, the words "de viand van de staat" (the enemy of the state) above the head of the dog on the left, and the name "Holland" on the egg on the right." (I really do not recall seeing this).

I'm going to stop here with the descriptions. There was so much more to see and marvel at, that the museum would need a dedicated blog! The third floor was contemporary art (which my husband snorted derisively at) and the ground floor had textile heritage showcasing changing fashions over the centuries There was also a section on the most amazing dolls houses - but I will save that for another day. A Van Gogh self potrait - which  I will not dwell on here as I plan to cover Vincent in my next post.

There is one matter that deserves mention and appreciation. This pertains to the easy accessibility that the Rijksmuseum provides to senior citizens, parents with infants and persons with disability. All the floors were easily accessible by wheel chair and stroller and allowed movement with dignity. Nobody was in anybody's way. If only our own museums and public buildings in India could do the same.

A few points to note if you're planning a visit. You can prebook your tickets (highly recommended). Just visit the Rijksmuseum website for that. Be careful to note the timings and holidays. The museum is easily reached by tram or bus or even bicycle if you are so minded. You will need to deposit your baggage in a locker. Photography is allowed inside the museum although without flash. And, saving the best for last, there is free wi-fi!

If you are in Amsterdam, do take the time to visit this wonderful museum. I promise it would be worth your while.

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