Friday, August 10, 2012

“Don’t ask me for forgiveness....

... Sumeet, for you don’t deserve it. Instead can you lend me your peace of mind?”

How often is the tide high? And when it is, I can’t stand the breathlessness... when it is not, I stand naked to the world. Fear was walking in through a small crack I didn’t mend and life was beginning to ask questions I wasn’t prepared to answer. Sumeet and I fought...  we fought a lot on things big and small... and usually it was me who was fighting to fill gaps in our puzzle. But the fact really is that we both came from alternative realities and the sooner I would accept it, the better.

October was 26 days old and I was beginning to get restless in my longest train journey ever. After a long separation from Sumeet... after a million meaningless fights and moving away from him to Singapore... after having missed him through every sentiment in my heart... all I was left with was a desire to return.... return to him but not to the circumstances. Together we decided, each to mend oneself.

I went to a hermitage... Madurai in southern India, ignited by the luminosity of a lonely ashram and a month long yoga programme. A train journey from Delhi to Madurai was my worst decision ever. It meant two days of jarring heat, an upper berth from where the only view is your feet as all you can do is lie down to avoid knocking your head against the train’s angry ceiling. No one spoke to me, nobody. The Tamil uncle, aunty and their little daughter, so full of oil that she would slip through your hand if you’d touch her... would oft stare at me from their enviable window facing seats almost laughing at me and my useless ipad. Internet came and went like a flippant affair and soon I gave up on it entirely. My monotony would sometimes be broken by the ‘chai wala’ offering sewage water for tea and the train attendant enquiring about my entire life but forgetting each time to ask what I would like to have from the train pantry. Lunch and dinner came these two days in polythene bags sitting on paper plates served with plastic spoons. Once finished, I would step down to throw my trash, brush my teeth and take a leak. All places of these chores were united in their forms of filth... the kind of filth that is all pervasive in my nation... so pervasive that where it is not, is an aberration; that being the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Ashram in Madurai.

My pre-booked driver uncle was waiting with his aged cab outside the nearly standing station. In the middle of the whistling night he and I made my first sojourn through Madurai. Musical as its name may sound, the city has lost its lyrics... reality is beginning to speak and there is nothing songlike about it. The only music however, that came to my ears was from the late night, street side stalls where radio sets stood competing with each other over bursts of Tamil songs.

I was soon in the ashram. The light had gone off and my ample torch took me to Anup sir. A young smiling face, I remember. He guided me to the girls’ dormitory where spiders, rats, mosquitoes and few sleeping women welcomed me. Morning woke up to an upped ante. Girls from all parts of the world were beginning to flood the dorm. Soon the bed next to me would be gone to a pretty girl and soon to be a very dear friend called Tanu from Hyderabad. Nations and colours of skins, shapes of eyes and forms of speech... all huddled up together in beds next to each other... finding peace in their comfort zones... comfort zones that had come with them as a part of their baggage. Where there was no similar partner, that girl would find the nearest possible match or simply get unlucky with an Indian for a bed buddy.

I went upstairs to our yoga classroom for our first informal session. Ishwara sat there on the stage in all his divinity. He smiled and pronounced a public hello but I was hesitant. I wasn’t mentally prepared to learn an ancient Indian art from a white man. He was ready to lend, but I wasn’t prepared to borrow. He sensed my thoughts but his smile wouldn’t fade. That smile..., which I soon learned, came with a million meanings. That smile which was warm yet detached; telling yet listening; reassuring yet strong. In his silences there was the wisdom of a 1000 words... Ishwara became the teacher I had long yearned for.

Soon we were all to be reformed. Our routine was strict. Waking up at five, eating limited meals, wearing decent clothes and practicing yoga and meditation at regular intervals of the day. There was little time for anything else. Yet, in the first two days I made friends for life and in the next few I shared my entire life with them. Sharan, Tanu and Sabina... Aanchal and Nimrita... Umaid and Kritarth... Vasu, Pauly, Nidhi... the two Shobhnas... no I can’t begin to name them all. I really can’t.

Nina came from Norway and Danny and her guitar from Canada, Mickey was Italian and Jorge ... well I don’t even remember now... as the borders merged soon and our realities became one. We were all seen wearing similar clothes, doing similar things... complaining about the same things and eating the same food without realising that the Ashram’s backyard was turning into a hill made of coconut shells. I remember Ramya saying jokingly that everything in this ashram has coco-nut in it... it’s in our heads too... no wonder we have all become nut heads.

Ishwara soon became an exhaustive topic of discussion... women desired him and men despised being devoid of that desire. He was being discussed everywhere... in bathrooms over buckets full of dirty clothes and running taps; in beds under wraps of mosquito nets; in corridors squashed between giggling girls... sometimes even during our other lectures.

Kapoor sir took our Vedanta classes. We loved him to bits; Deepa and I... not his lectures but his English. Come what may, he never failed us with it. Just the other day he wrote to all of us asking us to “Keep this ‘sprite’ of unity”. So in his classes both of us were always either making voracious notes on a new kind of English... or choking our lungs with suppressed laughters. Were there a war of words between my dad and sir, I can only begin to wonder what a mess this world would get into. Papa’s ‘guesstures' and sir’s ‘wondering’ monks...

One evening, legs spread wide and arms in tandem... as Umaid lay in his proprietary position right at the back of the room and the rest of the class hissed nonchalance...  Nagaraja sir quoted a verse from one of the religious books that didn’t go down well with many of us, mostly Tara and myself. It claimed whites as a lesser race than us Indian and it being our moral duty to help them cleanse their deeds. The verse struck as lightening in that shivering rainy night. The entire class woke up from their unnecessary reverie, Umaid included, such was the impact. I don’t mind being the higher race but I love a good argument and so I jumped in with full zest along with my American friend. By the middle of this argument the class was divided in two halves. One, that simply wanted to slip out of the room and go down to sleep and the other that wanted to kill us both for stretching the time of the class this long.

Ishwara summoned us next morning to enquire why we could not avoid an argument that took none of us to any inconceivable heights and left us with that thought...

...Sumeet would have said the same, but I wouldn’t have listened. That which sits on the periphery of our priorities is always what we are mostly fighting for. Throwing his dirty clothes everywhere... not helping in cooking... not giving me surprises on my birthday or our anniversary... when I sit down to think now, I cringe to accept, these were the issues I would argue on.

In this month long yoga course, I got multiple breaks where I had to take new friends through the milestones in my life and they would do the same, in casual conversation. Life had the ability to wrap itself up in not more than a 15 minute long description. Thirty years of my life that at various points I believed, had been stabbed by misfortune, injured by injustice and robbed off happiness... those thirty years which I would lament in thoughts and actions... which I believed had been my undoing... all that those thirty years really asked for was only 15 minutes of my speech. Yet I had always made such a big deal of my life all this while... yet I had victimised myself over things that had gone wrong... never realising that we all fight the same war, it is only the battles that we get to choose. No one is a lesser or greater victim of circumstances than the other, it is only about the choices we make... whether to go down or defy.

Fridays were really precious to those of us who would rather experience than sleep. Huddled up together at early chilling hours of the morning... when even the sun wouldn’t comply and night in reverse-gear would be tip-toeing its way away... all us men and women would be adjusted in three buses. On our separate trips to either the celestial spaces of the Meenakshi Temple or the discerning horizons of the Dhanushkoti, the birds and dense trees would stop to listen to our excited morning chants. Oh! Those Fridays were divine... at the end of the first one I wrote to Sumeet:

“Hi Baby, today we left the ashram to go to visit Madurai at 5:30 am and visited to three temples. The First one was called Triparakunda and it had six hundred stairs... Very beautifully placed inside a hill... Very very poor and old people were standing all over and around the hill washing their clothes and re-wearing them there and then just go visit the god in as pure a form as they could... It was a crazy sight...

Then from there we went to the Subramaniyam temple which is soooo beautiful tht my jaw dropped... until we went to the Meenakshi temple.... My god I have never seen such magnificence in my life... unbelievable...”

All this while life was healing my scars and teaching me the art of forgiveness. I had started to accept and that gave me a sense of freedom... When I heard the story of Jay’s life, I did not cry, I did not feel sorry for him... I only learnt a lesson from his strength and apologised for having judged him for the person he was... without learning of his life’s misgivings.

Today was the day it all had to finish... everyone of the 56 students were slowly boarding their flights... cabs were coming in and out to pick few at a time... there was feverish hugging and crying going on... and finally it was my time to leave... Ishwara picked me up in his arms into a tight hug. I later wrote to him to ask why I was the only one to be picked up... he said jokingly that I was the only one small enough to rise above the ground...

Maybe I truly had been small enough... and it was for me now to rise above the ground.

On my train journey back to Delhi, I wrote:

“Don’t ask me for forgiveness Sumeet, for I don’t deserve to give it. Instead, can I get back the sorrow I gave you once?”

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

When I decided to walk...

I walk through the street, that... which did not exist for me until a while ago...

My camera is justly dancing over me, spraining my neck with its string... holding itself up to my left eye as the one on the right shuts to take a placid moment into its lap...

Life gets funny sometimes. It drags you on to the road on a cold dreadful night... strips you naked in the midst of a crowd and gives you nowhere to run, until one morning you wake up and realise it was all circumstantial...

I woke up one fine morning with two fractured feet, fat, jobless, mission-less... with no place to call home, no money that was my own and no shoulder to cry on. My whole life walked past me like a lost opportunity. I was thinking hard in reverse gear, wondering what note of the symphony I had missed...

‘Papa I want to paint,’ I heard myself say when I was 5, when I was 9, when I was 16 and once when I was 18 and then I forgot all that I ever said to papa...

All the flashes then on were those of a flight missing and me running... a flight to catch for life... and in that haste, I forgot to walk.

I looked towards my plastered feet, decided to get them walking without the cast... called up Kalyan Joshiji, son of the National Awardee – Shree Lal Joshiji, in Bhilwara, Rajasthan and said ‘Sir, I am coming there for a month.’

I had never been to that town, I knew no one there, my parents were shocked and Sumeet was slightly upset at my lack of planning... Lesson learnt... if someone doesn’t think 24 years of planning is enough then that guy must surely be an engineer. Check!

Bags packed... from Delhi to Jaipur with plasters on... from Jaipur to Bhilwara with Bata chappals. This time I will walk! Check!

There is nothing to take home to, in terms of the beauty of that town... at first glance it is just another lump of filth like anywhere else in India... that doesn’t mean I don’t love the filth... there is an uncanny sense of character to it... atleast it smells of something... In London here nothing smells... all is the same.

Kalyan sir decided to put me up for the entire month in his sister’s house... kind people! Beyond the knowledge of understanding, there is another knowledge called generosity... that is the only knowledge we Indians know... seasons are many, but our hearts are always warm...

Preeti Bhabhi and Pawan Bhaiya's two daughters!
Their son Krishna!
Auntie, Pawan Bhaiya and Preeti Bhabhi and their three kids kept me with them for 28 days without any expectation or more... it was the kind of generosity I did not understand. There was a point where I stopped getting overwhelmed... it became a permanent state of mind.

Kalyan sir’s home was roughly a km away. As I walked the street, that... which did not exist for me until a while ago... My camera justly dancing over me...

Unnamed faces cropped up, unknown voices were asking me to ‘take my picture didi. You are journalist?’ I smiled and thanked god for technology... atleast I don’t have to act economical here on the number of pictures I take... what if I was still living in my dad’s era with those Kodak camera rolls... and then I wondered why? Why do we want strangers to take our photographs when the only place where that picture will ever end up is in the bosom of an unfamiliar space... from where we would never be able to retrieve it....Why do we ever smile to a stranger’s camera... when the story behind that smile will never tell itself to people we will ever know?

Bhilwara is known as the city of looms... !

Thinking as I walked along unstitched streets of old Bhilwada... streets that were creased with loud excitement... rikshaw pullers waiting for their next customer... cows hosting round table conferences in the middle of human fervour... men in white going for their morning namaaz... beggars busy at what they do best... shop shutters opening with a sound that was frightfully similar to an aircraft crashing... vegetable sellers crowning the space right next to the gutters with their buttocks and a basket full of greens... women with their heads covered crossing the road surprisingly with more precision than men with their eyes wide open... the violent sounds of oil beating the bottom of pans as Bilwara’s famous kachoris flew out of them one-by-one, hot in the October sun, sweating with cholesterol... I walked past the prying morning into the home of my master...


Tachki and Gotiya... Kalyan Sir's two daughters!
Kalyan Sir working on a 32 feet long Phad on the terrace!

The entrance gate was an obligatory fixture... like a school girl off to party in a see-through dress. Kalyan sir’s mother frail as an autumn leaf... dressed in her customary Rajasthani lehenga choli and maang tika that was intertwined with her hair as one... welcomed me with a smile as she continued mopping the floor... sometimes as I write I stop suddenly and start to wonder. How do I write of such experiences? How do I explain?

It was a modest house, yet there was so much space... Tachki, Gotiya and Pollu were Kalyan sir’s three kids... then there was Bauji or the great artist to whom once M.F. Hussain had said, “If I am the king of horses, you are the king of elephants....” Shilp Guru Shree Lal Joshiji had weathered with age. His coughing would run through the house like rabid tremors but his fingers still ran like magic through canvass. I touched his feet and walked up the stairs for my first lesson in Phad Painting.

'Bauji' National Awardee Shree Lal Joshiji

Like a moment that got captured in its own freedom... like a star that became the victim of its own glory... like a beam, a sun-beam that caught fire off its own heat... Rajasthan’s Phad Painting lost itself somewhere on the way. Its intent to remain an art for the few became its nemesis in the tide of popular art forms across the world...

Phad’s originators were the Joshi (Jyotishi or astrologer) clan from Rajasthan. They made these 32 feet long scrolls of art narrating life stories of local deities Pabuji and Dev Narayanji. These were heroes who had died saving the cattle of the pastoral communities and were later deified... Here people are dying saving nations... what irony!

The long Phad scrolls were purchased by story tellers called 'Bhupas' at a nominal price of INR 1000 as they carried them along enacting stories from the painting to enraptured rural populace.

Women were not allowed to learn the tricks of this art so that it would not get out of the household when they get married... now this is an interesting alternative to patenting, however historical.
Bauji stood against the fortress of time, shattering purported vanities and taking women under his tutelage. I being one of the few lucky ones... there came a time in Bhilwara’s memoires where women got extra wedding offers if they knew a thing or two about Phad.

Phad’s style, faces, expressions, expanses, monarchs, monarchies, feminine fragility and an oft pawn-like flaccidity ... all have not wrinkled nor maimed over years and years of art and thought... thought has gone into changing mediums, canvasses, lengths... but all else remains the same... no face looks ahead, no! The art form hasn’t looked ahead either...  

After a Phad would age and the paint would start to wear off, the painting was passed into the Ganges following proper rituals.

The only appalling variations to this ancient art came with students such as myself. My first few lessons with sir went by in bobbling and inept doodling... the next few in the fear that very less time is left and the remaining in the heightened fear that almost all the time is gone. In between of these torrential fears, and hammering mental workouts, my stomach often grumbled and Kalyan sir’s wife sensed it like a mother would. She fed me with the most unbelievable Rajasthani lunches... so full of love and oil!! My heart yelled with sinful pleasure as did my belly.

Dinners were mostly at Preeti Bhabhi, Pawan Bhaiya and aunty’s place. Preeti Bhabhi had a rawness to her beauty that was both refreshing and silently robust. As she would serve me rotis coated with streams of desi ghee every evening, her face partly covered, partly peeping out of the saree’s pallu... whispering just nothings and somethings to me... her careless kindness would fill up the surroundings. I often would implore her to speak in a normal pitch as all other people would do but in her part of the world whispering and veiling are totems of respecting superiority... be it your husband or your husband’s family. Many call it servitude... I call it an alternative reality.

My lessons started to help shape the movements of my hands into something coherent... soon turning into paintings and then bigger and bigger ones...

Some of my initial work!


Radha Krishna!

Kalyan sir gave me decades of this knowledge in the form of faith... he gave me faith in an artist’s inane goodness, belief in the powers of speechless expressions, trust in the ability of telling histories with a single stroke. I learnt from Bauji and him, Gopal sir and Rahul sir (Kalyan sir’s brothers) not one but many arts... the most profound of which was the art of progeny. That which is born of you is not always a child... but could be a moment, a minute, an hour, a life-time...

From me in those 28 odd days was born a lifetime of love for folk Indian art forms and that shall be my progeny. To nurture it with my milken love is the job he left me with at the end of our journey. As all the family members shed a last tear of repressed sorrow at my leaving... as they dropped me to the bus stand... as they bid me good bye... I prepared myself for another kind of life... a life that has just given itself a lesson.

On my way back to Jaipur in a sleeper coach bus... I made to myself several promises... promises of staying in touch with all that I have left behind, promises of calling them as often as I can, of inviting them to UK when I have the funds, of hosting an exhibition soon with my guru-Kalyan Joshi, of living many more dreams and desires... unto I die. Promises are residues of experiences... I have to admit I do forget to put them to good use sometimes.

Nevertheless, for now I may call myself an artist... not one, with art at her behest... but one whose behest is art!