Like the condiments that go into making a good, tasty cup of masala chai; these stories about people, places and events surrounding the ritual of drinking or making tea, draw a portrait of city/nation/self.
It was sometime around 1993/94 that I walked into an exhibition at the Shridharani Gallery at Triveni Kala Sangam to see its walls hung with quaint water-colour and gouache drawings of everyday things. One was of a brightly coloured chair almost floating in space [I think it may have been in shades of red.] It did not evoke a Van Gogh-like angst, but was a light-hearted presentation of a young girl’s view of things. The work and the artist’s effervescent personality stayed with me. We met again a few years later. She had married and her work had grown from the charming intimate details of the world around her, to large canvasses and elaborately detailed but quasi-abstract paintings on expensive Japanese paper.
We remained in touch but it was only when we both moved to Gurgaon, she some three years after I had, that we renewed the earlier connection. Strangely, both had similar stories to tell, of how living in Gurgaon had somehow shaken us out of our complacency and sense of self.
Early June 2011, I went to see her at her home on the 8th floor of Central Park in DLF. She was dressed casually, no make-up, wearing a skimpy, pink T with spaghetti straps and a pair of white Bermuda pants. She answered my door-bell, welcoming me to her new home with their pet dog, a Boxer named Rustom and two lanky young boys in tow. I had never met Angad her younger son and Amir was a toddler when I last saw him, but they both gave me a delightful, tight hug. Her apartment is a veritable art gallery; every nook has a hook from which hangs a prized work of art belonging to friends and other artists. Works by Nasreen Mohammedi, Ramchandran, Shiela Makhijani, Mrilani Mukherjee, Christine Michael and many, many others adorn the walls along with collected stones and Japanese tea cups to gravel, artefacts, sculptures and a bowl full of very tempting, rich and dark, sticky-jaw toffees; adding to that sense of plentiful.
We had tea and chatted. The not-so common, deep rusty-brown mugs with glistening blue dimples on the surface and a bright cobalt glaze on the inside, that we drank from, with their matter of fact, grip-me-tight handles, had a distinct reflection of the Manisha I know: ebullient, sensual, colourful, earthy; a no-nonsense girl with natural grace. She darted between the kitchen and living room area, tending to a sick maid, looked in to see if her parents, who were visiting were comfortable, hollered at the boys and the dog. Persuaded them to go down and play and then relaxed effortlessly as if all that had been just a teeny-weeny blip on the screen of her mind. I looked at the work she was currently doing, reflecting back to the early paintings.. However, as we talked I began realizing that as mother, wife, daughter, artist and now writer too, her attention was divided and she was looking within rather than at the external world to grapple with the growing complexity of her life.
Manisha’s work has changed. She mentioned feeling cut off from her life-style and friends in Delhi for whom the distance is a deterrent to come visit. Maybe this was reason for the change? Despite the crowding she had spoken of in terms of physical space [of a smaller home] and also of time, certain quietude has entered her visual language Bright colours no longer dominate the paper.
Delicate pencil lines evocative of long strands of hair blowing in a gentle breeze; held together tenderly with an exotic band, tied at a point nearing its ends, caught my eye. Two milky-white pages of coarse-grained, expensive water-colour paper that were joined were judiciously filled with gentle marks, confined to the centre of the page, running across it horizontally. The rest was left blank.The pencil rendering had a meditative quality.
On another sheet, vertebrae-like forms, in a similar rendition, using pencil and very little colour, looked like they were being skewered. The skewer was upright, going through the centre of the page and looked like the spine of someone seated. “A strange kind of ‘shashlik[i]’ that would make” I thought; but the bottom-most one was wrapped in a lushly painted maroon pouch, as if it was something precious. “Protecting it from the heat of the oven, it would eventually get cooked in?” I murmured to myself. Despite my rather visceral imaginative musings, the drawing itself was subtly nuanced and almost stark by comparison, with its delicate pencil markings and sparing application of colour.
I saw in her attachment to what had been, denoted by the preciously wrapped, first vertebrae, [which traditionally symbolizes the first step on the spiritual journey], as a reflection of my own reluctance to willingly go deeper within, often needing the crush of experience and engagement to compel introspection.
For me too, it’s not been easy settling into Palam Vihar, on the other side of DLF. This experience has been fraught with anger and frustration and making friends even harder after moving from Friends Colony in Delhi, where I had lived for more than 20 years. Also, the cultural events that I enjoy happen mostly in Delhi. Palam Vihar is culturally barren. Aside from a ‘Big cinema’ that usually shows only Hindi movies, there is nothing I find to do here and feel quite isolated both intellectually and socially. This has meant I have to frequently make the hour-long trek into Delhi to keep in touch with people and the world of art. This along with other issues like noise pollution and handling the vagaries of condominium living and its management has demanded greater mental efficiency. It can get quite chaotic inside my head, creating the necessity of learning to handle life and people with greater detachment. Taking me deeper inwards, working more and more on the turmoil of emotions created by a more interactive life, to try and achieve this.
I know it is a futile endeavour to resist change. However, when one has the energy to breeze through the daily up’s and downs, it becomes hard to wilfully bring in change, disturbing a hard-earned equanimity. Moving to Gurgaon had done this to both of us in differing, yet not so different ways. For whatever the situation or circumstance that arose, both had been pushed to question our sense of self. It seemed that we challenged ourselves with this circumstance, to compel us enter deeper recesses to discover a hitherto unknown ambition and the potential to work towards its fulfilment, restructuring our lives in ways that would earlier have been unimaginable.
Was there any other way, I wondered? I imagine only few very adventurous people would knowingly take a plunge into the unknown. It needs a lot more than simple courage to change your life-style, welcome a whole truck-load of people, strange places, customs and an altered routine. It was at this point in my thought-filled meandering that I caught sight of cars piling up on the Golf Course Road just in front of Manisha’s apartment building and hurried home to avoid being stuck in Gurgaon’s famed office-hour traffic jam.