Form & Substance

Some days the world is too much with us and the centre cannot hold. Appropriating Mr. Yeats here. Why waste words when someone has already said it so beautifully?

The pandemic has not only unleashed a virus but a lethal cocktail of fear and fatigue. Its manifestation ranges from cruelty, intolerance, anxiety, grief, confusion and a plethora of other states of being, often a flux. At times, it can get too much even for incorrigible optimists. Silence is relief then. I’d read somewhere that silence is not the absence of words but the absence of thoughts. How difficult it is to be truly silent!

And so, the news has been silenced and life has been lived slowly. The frequent and sometimes long power outages have been helpful to keep the expanse of quiet and slowness of analog life moored. The woods aid that sense of anchoring. I’ve been enjoying its green heart in the rains, especially since it is almost devoid of people. No two days in there are the same, it is always fresh and new. The ground is teeming with life now so I stick to the tracks rather than stomp down on some creature. It’s messy with thin soled shoes so got a pair of wellies. Hopefully, ambling will be a little easier over the next few wet months.

A few days ago, I wrote a letter to a little boy who turns 11 later this month. Usually, letters are easy to write, it’s like speaking but occasionally I want them to be a little extra special, like this birthday special for a young man I have never met. So, I let it remain unwritten for a couple of weeks. Finally, it came to me as I lay down on the floor after practice. There was music wafting from the kid’s balcony studio. Perhaps, it was the state of mind after practice, maybe it was the music, maybe it was the morning reading or perhaps it all coalesced into a question. What is the form and substance of our lives, our living? And in that thought, I found my letter for R. Of course, not in quite so serious a manner but hopefully he will pause to consider it.

As much as it was a focal point for the letter, it became a question to myself too. I found articulation of the answer in Maudie, a movie I saw today. It is a dramatized account of Maud Lewis’ life, a folk artist from Canada. Brilliant essaying of roles by the lead actors, a gorgeous Nova Scotian landscape and beautifully restrained dialogue. There is harshness, hardship and pain yet the entire movie flows in love- quiet, slow and content. “The whole of life, framed.”

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found this on the youngling’s table a few days ago and it reminded me of Maud’s home. Water colour on paper

Art and the Artist

But why should we label artists as belonging to some place or by their sexual orientation? Inevitable, how gender, caste/race and class inevitably come up to introduce the creator of art in all reviews. By knowing the background of the artist, perhaps unconsciously our lens adjusts itself to respond to their art in a manner that comes from biases, both aware and unaware. In the wake of creative people who have since become infamous for their sexual offences, there is a conflict between how one views the creator and the creation. And then the question follows, should art be seen separate from the artist’s life?

I’m not an artist and have no understanding of technique, history or philosophy of art. All I know is how I respond to it mostly at a visceral level. And it remains just that, a personal response, often intuitive and completely subjective. Yesterday was a cocktail of different stimuli, yoga- shared and studied, work, an interesting webinar (first time I listened in to one while sitting in the woods), a quiet movie, some reading and an essay on an artist.

That last one there piqued my curiosity and I spent time looking through the artist’s website, www.salmantoor.com . It’s not the kind of art I might go seeking but something compelled me to dwell on it for a while. A few themes from many aspects of my day echoed in his work. The day saw two triads of thought, Gender, Race and Class was one and the other was exclusion, exploitation and expendability. These are playing out loudly on a world stage at present but closer home, the story has been the same in my small universe of work. For now, they’ll just simmer until that post writes itself out.

Back to the artist, I felt there was a thread of an essential loneliness in the subjects of his art. Some solitary and awake, some asleep, some in twos or in groups but disconnected-connected. There was an overarching sense of a resigned aloneness of each individual, an underscoring of the impossibility to ever truly share space, awake, asleep or in dreams. Even in intimacy between two people, there is a movement towards separation, a parting that is implicit.

All his paintings are of people and the bookshelf ones also have people in photo frames. Something about them reminds me of a Van Goghian anxiety and there is a drawing into his world with a colour wash of greens and quick facial features, particularly the sense organs. The bodies seem to be treated with a pallor of disregard, an indifference and the backgrounds have an emptiness of urban spaces even when crowded with people.

I didn’t find sadness as much as I found a capturing of something like apathy, there is hope yet. It feels as if the paintings are a seeking that has not found its destination yet and as a viewer I want to know the outcome. I want it to be of resolution but there’s also the possibility that it will never come. The tableaus are a playing out of images of ideas of what might be thought of as revelry through a debauchery, reminiscent of opulent pasts in a present continuum with the paraphernalia of a global 21st century, including the ubiquitous cell phone.

The trees where they appear are barren almost always. Blues and browns make up much of his colours besides the green. The orange-white pairing when it occurs feels like the possibility of something outside the normal a slight elevation perhaps, of a different response but there appears to be no definite outcome yet. Through all of the works I saw on his site, I experienced the painter in the paintings, as much a part of the pigments in the canvas as his subjects. Some of the paintings that caught my attention almost immediately were Immigration men, Boy in Window. Floating Shelf II (this felt like a peek into the artist), Confession and the Green Bar. Needless to say, these are just personal musings that found their way here and in no way a review, I am not qualified to do so. And all of this meandering is probably way off what the artist intended.

Since it’s been an arty post, here’s a recent water colour on paper by the resident artist.

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Trashed Beauty

I woke up this morning and found myself on the floor, glasses askew, mugs and bowls, books and papers all around, earplugs entangled around my arms and a trailing saree. After an initial moment of bewilderment, I put on my glasses and remembered a longish night, laughing to Forrest Gump, nostalgic wanderings to a trail in Auroville, a midnight snack and some beautiful sketching by the youngling. There was music too that wafted to the accompaniment of moonlight and jasmine scents of a summer night.

Magic

The trashed room was actually a lovely reminder of the fullness of yesterday and its incompleteness too. It’s always the longing for what lies just a little beyond even as you go about the business of living. It’s been a very long time since my room grew wild on me like that. In the midst of a night space shared by the resident young artist and this scatterer of words, both of us acknowledged the chaos of our craft.

an artist sees herself

We produce a fair bit and then go on to produce more, scattering our babies across tables and books where we cannot quite find them. Last night I was searching for a line I had written earlier in the day and had to hunt across 2 screens, a notebook and a notepad before finding it tucked away in a blue cursive hand in a letter yet to be mailed!

Daylight comes and lifts the veil of night’s magic and last night was pure enchantment. Right from the moon peeking behind clouds, the intoxication of night blossoms in my balcony garden and a shared space of music, art and words to the delight of a favourite film on my screen. I could have died then and it would have been a lovely celebration of living.

Yesterday’s blog rumination prompted a repeat of the movie and it was just as sentimentally sweet now as it was the first time I saw it. It almost seems blasphemous to savour the days of slow living and helpless creating when a pandemic has wreaked havoc. In the midst of this island of companionable silence, there’s also the din of volunteering which brings up stark realities of hunger, abuse and opportunistic tendencies. Inevitable. As my friend AJ says, it is what it is.
And so I straddle two worlds of completeness and endeavour.

A letter to my daughter

Darling firstborn

We’ve crossed the halfway mark of the lockdown. It seems an uncertain world that we will emerge into whenever this forced isolation is over. What is certain though is that art created in these times, splashing a canvas with fears and desires across all kinds of media, will remain. Decades from now, a future generation will read about these times like we do about the ages gone by of older wars and plagues.

These days hand written letters have morphed into images sent electronically

A couple of nights ago, I had fallen off to sleep and then gotten up with a start. So, I thought I’d work on some writing when your sister came by. She craves company and says that she is like a bug to my light. It’s a cute analogy. For me though, at writing times, I want silence and complete isolation. I don’t like having anyone nearby. Long story short, I didn’t end up writing but indulged her drawing whims.

We spoke for a long while and she sketched me, I really like the picture. Sending it to you so you can see what I mean. She is gifted and doesn’t quite know it. That’s probably the best place to be as an artist. Perhaps someday, I might ask her to make illustrations for books I will write. Through my writing, I have started to discover myself and explore beyond the edges of what I thought I knew. It’s been exhilarating, this deluge of discovery. But that’s for another day when I get to see you in person, my love.

It’s late and I’m tired. My mind’s ranged universes today and I have no wise words or thoughts for us to ponder, just this little slice of my today. And a very big I love you.

Mom

Plums and Daffodils

Sometime in December, there was a book exhibition in the neighbourhood. The kind where some books were sold by the kilo, some were discounted secondhand books and some brand new. Every time I went there, ostensibly just to see or to accompany someone, I ended up buying a few. Almost all the books from that month were titles bought in a spirit of adventure, genres I haven’t read in a while or not at all.

And there was a bonus in the form of bookmarks and notes. I’ve seen them often in library books, notes, photographs and even the odd letter but when such books come home to stay, their accompaniments are always interesting to spend some time over. A peek into someone else’s world.

One such is this bookmark, a reproduction of a hanging scroll in ink and colour by Wu Ch’ang- shi titled Plums and Daffodils (1923). Wikipedia tells me he was a prominent painter of the Shanghai school, calligrapher and seal artist of the late Qing Period. There is an interesting piece about the artist on the internet, you could read about it here.

The bookmark had immediate appeal by virtue of its incomplete fullness, as though one encountered the perfect frame in the middle of a walk. Ofcourse, the fact that it has flowers and fruits and a certain controlled flamboyance besides script added to its charm for me. I would very much like to know what the artist wrote since he seemed to have been steeped in scholarly studentship early on.

Art is such a unifier, across differences of geography and beliefs. It’s also such a marker of the lives and times of different periods. I’m quite intrigued by the script on the side of the scroll and would love to know what it means. Perhaps if someone knows to read Chinese, they might help? It’s always fascinating to see how highly disciplined and trained classical artists work when they break structure, more about what is unsaid than said.

In the mad medley of a working Monday, I finished reading one book, wrote a bit, taught someone and spent a fair bit of time looking at this old bookmark. Thanks to google, I found a little to read up on an artist and enrich a few minutes of my today. One of the perks of independent work is the flexibility to intersperse work with pleasure and that is an incredible privilege.

Sunrise Sunset

It’s rare that I get to sit and enjoy a sunrise and a sunset on the same day. Mostly it’s a hustle- work, home, yoga, writing and escaping into the woods. But somedays I get a perfect ordinary day that rolls out rather spaciously. Yesterday was one such serendipitous Saturday. I woke up to a sleeping household which is unusual considering an insomniac mother who is fast fading into senility. A quiet cup of coffee later, I took off to the woods nearby. No one saw me or heard me leave home and I was reminded of a younger me as I hurried out with a skip in my step. Those days I sneaked out to meet a boy, these days I sneak out to meet myself.

Five minutes later I was swallowed by the woods along with the sounds of the city and transported to a different soundscape of parakeets and distant train horns. The dried leaves felt satisfactorily crunchy as they disintegrated under my feet becoming part of the spread of forest floor in front of me. The glyricidia is almost at the peak of its blooming and I remembered my poet friend in Bangalore. So, I tagged her on a photo I scattered on the internet in one of the countless web notebooks I’ve opened and never closed.The trail never disappoints. It has its assortment of humans, things and animals . Mostly, I leave the beaten track and amble without any design,, that’s where the magic comes alive. I’ve come across a bunch of papers with notes and poems, seen voodoo dolls nailed into trees, a bike that has been steadily coming apart, pants hanging on a tree and so on. Sometimes, there are little tableaus left behind like a clearing with broken coconuts, vermilion, flowers and ash suggesting a very romantic runaway marriage. Then there are the groups of people at play or chopping firewood, running or doing drills- those I steer away from.

These objects or arrangements of things or even people are rich fodder for an overactive imagination. It’s always interesting to see two or more people and watch from a distance. Without the benefit of verbal communication, body language speaks volumes and it’s easy to make up stories. Writing is a sly craft that way, piggybacking on real lives. Often the watched are unaware and I’m aware of my voyeurism but I can’t stop myself.

Like the barechested man I saw at a remove. He was in a yoga pose and part of me wanted to adjust his torso while another was curious about his sequence and still another wondered about his motivation. And then the story making began, without any warning. Slow brush strokes of imaginary people and circumstances of his life and once a flimsy narrative begins to emerge, the details start filling themselves in. Barring a name, he is alive in a way he probably isn’t in his real life.

And it repeats for all that I encounter, people and things, living and inanimate. Abandoned poetry and essays, voodoo dolls hammered into trees, pants hanging on trees, a motorcycle without wheels and handles, the old man and his gorgeous Alsatians and the list goes on. Every day, different stories unfold. Yesterday, I heard music but didn’t look behind to see simply because words began to unfurl…

a voice sings behind me
plaintive, it dips and meanders
somewhere behind
but i walk on

the melody is haunting
perfect perhaps
for a song I wrote
but i walk on

maybe it’s a troubadour
i see gypsy tents
in the distance
but i walk on

the music is relentless
urgent, insistent
a message
but i walk on

the wild woods spill
onto a beaten path
i am expelled
i walk on

A reader’s writing

I’ve been a reader since I was 8 or 9 and discovered that I could lose myself in the written word. There was no need to navigate people and situations with a book, one could live suspended in another’s world. It’s been many years and the act of reading has been a faithful one. Some years, I read fiction, some mythology, still others biographies and for many, I studied ancient texts. It has been an unending love affair with books. The finishing of a few of them have been an aching loss while others have been dipped into again and again.

Now that many years have passed since that first children’s book, I find that there is a maturing of the reader too, a coming of age. I thought the grown up books I read as an adolescent made me adult and worldly but I found that one needs the experience of living, loving and losing to truly taste language in all its multi hued nuances. I just finished an expansive volume on Kama by Gurcharan Das, a modern unpacking of desire and it unleashed many words inside that I didn’t know existed. Words of poetry or philosophy, I know not. Can they be both? Where does one end and the other begin or have they no boundaries? Maybe they’ll surface here, maybe not but I do hope they are found after I am gone.

Leaving with a musing that wrapped many layers from the colour of my saree to the book I read…

Half and Half

Ascetic. Erotic.
Blue Bodies

Half of him is her
Half of her is him

Upward. Downward.
One mind

Half of her is him
Half of him is her

Bound. Unbound.
Forever free

Half of him is him
Half of her is her

Notes on Desire

What is this desire
Will it burn and consume
Will it stoke and feed

Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha are the purusharthas or four goals of human life and living. Each stage of life, roughly estimated at 25 years was meant to be devoted to one of the goals in that order to maintain harmony in the individual and society. Essentially, it was to keep a time and place for all aspects of being human. In the context of our diminished times, they can be split into 20 year blocks and it will still remain true. Go explore.

Tuesday with a shoebox of memories

A Tuesday morning spent in the company of an old shoe box with even older letters and cards.

This was written on a folded piece of paper by a friend who is a star herself. She was one of my early correspondents as I discovered how fragile and difficult adulting can be. Back then, the term didn’t exist but the suffering was real.

She died young but lived a full life of music, art and swimming with the dolphins. India was probably her soul home and she would spend 6 months at a stretch here before heading back to England.

The very last time I saw her was when she stopped by on her way home. She was quite poorly then but wouldn’t miss spending time here. As I type, I can see her bright eyes, freckled face and wisps of blonde hair bleached by the sun. Her arms were tanned and spotted with much sun and she radiated beauty.

Her letters lifted me up on days I struggled and now when I look back, I wonder what did she see in that barely 20 year old?

This particular line is so beautiful and is as true today as it was over 20 years ago. This one is for a new old sister of the heart who completes another trip around the star of our Solar System. Sending you love T, from a star in the skies. .