Monday, 28 November 2011

What Does Water Mean to You? [Yamuna-Elbe Art Project]

Wild grass and the Loha Pul 
[entrance to Project Y]
I was given a transparent, glass bowl of water from the Elbe River in Germany to hold in my hands. Another, identical bowl containing water from the River Yamuna lay on the table. I was then asked to think of what water meant to me. For a moment, I just went blank but slowly the memories came.
The first memory that I recounted to Ines was of a holiday we took as a family in 1971 to Manali and stayed in a log hut in the mountains, overlooking the roaring River Beas. I remember the sound as much as I do the way the water rushed down stream because I had spent hours, even days trying to capture its waters swirling around a huge boulder, on my canvas. It was a child’s painting; an inadequate representation of the awesome power of water. The roar of its force as a billion gallons ran down the mountainside at such speed is something I still listen out for whenever I am in the vicinity of mountains. But, have to confess that I have never found the experience to be quite as enthralling as this one, when I was twelve years old. What had drawn my attention was the way this fearsome, rapid water, ran over a huge boulder effortlessly, without stopping or struggling. Its ability to silently circumvent obstacles that came in its path, rather than bludgeon through, destroying them with wrath, is another facet I remember not being able to bring to life on the canvas. Much to my embarrassment, this painting hung on my father’s office wall, behind his desk for years, visible to every visitor or colleague. I have no idea why he was so proud of it but, being there, it reminded me again and again of my inadequacy to represent what I had felt and seen. 
Ines Lechleitner during
her performance [with me]

When Ines asked me to recount, I was unable to say all of this, but her art performance triggered this memory and I became curious.   Why did this particular recollection come to the fore? And not those of many afternoons spent on the Shikaras[i] on Dal Lake in Srinagar or the Thames in London on whose banks at Cheyne Walk I had lived for more than four years, as a student. I recollect standing on Battersea Bridge, in the freezing cold at night, to draw the night lights on Albert Bridge. I also remember visiting the Niagara Falls, again in winter, and walking through icicles. There have been so the many water bodies I have encountered on my travels, in Scotland or even on the Okinawa islands in Japan, but it was this early memory that was foremost, not the others.
When we moved to Delhi from Calcutta in 1969, we lived in Maharani Bagh and then later in Friends Colony [East], both of which are close to the River Yamuna. I remember one year, I think it was 1977 or maybe 1978, when the Yamuna almost flooded. We would go to the embankment every evening to see the level the water had risen to. One day when it reached just about 1” below the wall in Kalindi, we were told that even a millimetre above the wall would cause massive flooding.  Everyone moved all their furniture to the first floor, but thankfully the flood never came. The water receded and somehow the Yamuna has never been quite the same again.

Atul Bhalla's Installation against
the Loha Pul
Recently, an afternoon in November, looking at the Yamuna-Elbe public art project, at the DDA Jubilee Park, near Old Delhi, on the banks of the River Yamuna, I wandered through Atul Bhalla’s installations of massive off-white, opaque, cloth and papier mache structures shaped like water bottles, embedded at all angles into the grey sand of the river bed. Each had a question beside it, drawn from the epic Mahabharata when the Yaksha or river spirit had asked the Pandava brothers why they should be allowed to drink from her resource. Atul posed some of these questions in Hindi. A small font below this, giving the English translation asked: “What should my revolt be, what is my place, what is my insanity?”   He posed the questions in reference to the river but without spelling it out, so the question could be about you too.

Sheba Chachhi's Installation on the
River Yamuna

I thought of myself as the River Yamuna and wondered what she would think of her place in contemporary society.  A river, people now, only visit to immerse ashes of their dead; she is no longer the water body that was once revered. Her revolt seems to be in evidence. Her water is undrinkable. Most localities in Delhi do not have sufficient potable water, but we have not yet learned. We still dump our waste in this. Later, as I took a motor boat to see Asim Waqif's installation in the water and also Sheba Chhachhi’s  white, unidentified, almost-abstract, floating form that could have been a yoni, or two legs or even two arms with hands held together in prayer, the stench was devastating. It smelt of sewage and, as Atul put it, all the drains of Delhi lead into the Yamuna; therefore it’s really no better than a sewer.  Her insanity was in evidence too; she endured, had endured for centuries and that she still flows is testimony to this. It reminded me of the River Beas I had tried to capture in all its fury running down huge boulders, gently caressing the surface, circumventing the rocks as if in complete understanding and acceptance of their role in the eco-system, however irksome to the river’s flow. 
Black water reflects the
sunset to perfection

The Yamuna water looked black, reflecting the sunset to perfection and had it not been for the stench, silhouettes of the birds that flew overhead would have made a wonderful picture, on this dark surface, reflecting a pinkish-russet sunset. The many faces of nature are baffling indeed, making me consider whether we can ever fully grasp this.
Atul on the motor-boat ride,
Asim Waqif's installation behind him

 Environmentalists and now artists are crying about an imbalance in the eco-system, implying we are not taking cognisance of its fragility and, I wonder, whether it’s the fragility of nature at stake or the fragility of man to accept his own power of harnessing nature with the same grace that this water seems to accept our offerings of plastic bags, waste and marigold as well as ashes of cremated bodies. I recollect Art of Living’s Sri Sri Ravi Shankar had spoken about a campaign for cleaning up the Yamuna, so asked Atul who accompanied me on the motor-boat ride, what happened to that project and was told: “All these campaigns are mere theatrics. We need massive sewage treatment plants to clean up this river.”
Gigi Scaria's Tower

Gigi Scaria’s tower, meant to purify the water threw up a fountain of really dirty water – the tower spouted a darkish liquid, which was anything put purified.  Showing us just how putrefied this water had become. Yet the bowl of water that Ines had collected was not that bad. It was not quite as clean as the water she had carried from the Elbe, but just slightly hazier than this, not the muddy fountain that was being spewed from Gigi’s purification tower. Leaving yet another trail of thought and questions about the real state of its being and also about our perception of things: how a glass bowl, with its own transparency, seemed to clarify what looked immensely black when I rowed its depth and equally dark and threatening as it seemingly refused to be cleansed by an artist’s endeavour, as if mocking his attempt.
Chappals and the keechad

What the future holds in respect of our natural resources, whether nature will inflict her fury or man will self-destruct are questions no-one has answers for.  Project Y did however make me question various parameters of existence, recollect memories, roam uninhibitedly on the sand, letting the reta mitti[ii] sift through my chappalled[iii] feet, walk among the wild, uncultivated foliage - mostly rushes and weeds, and through  keechad[iv], feeling liberated from the otherwise constraining factors of urban living. I was blissfully able to disconnect with this, let go of the need to control the emotions in order to get by. Inspired by the water and her philosophy I re-discovered compassion; however insane it may seem in a world where being ruthless is admired and goodness is seen as naive and foolish.

Still from Vivan Sundaram's video
Finishing off my exploration with a cup of tea, I chatted with Deeksha Nath, her mother, her seventeen month old son and husband Kabir, Meera Menezes and Atul Bhalla. Rounded off the experience watching Vivan Sundaram’s video of his homage to the Yamuna showing a raft made of thousands of ‘Himalaya spring water’ plastic bottles, the caps all the same tone of bright, chameli [v]pink being lowered onto the waters of the Yamuna and rowed with a priest seated on it, dressed in full regalia. As the journey was deemed finished, the raft of plastic water bottles was ruthlessly broken into pieces, on camera.  It was a visually seductive video with the pink bottle caps and the Loha Pul[vi] in the background. A major landmark of the Jubilee Gardens, the iron railway-cum-motor bridge carries, to this day, trains and cars to and from Old Delhi railway station. In all the years I have lived in Delhi, I have no recollection of this bridge or, for that matter even taking a train from Old Delhi Railway Station. However, I did reach there today by travelling on this bridge; a novel experience indeed.
Asim Waqif's Installation
against the Bridge

Inside the car on the Loha Pul
en route to Project Y
The River Yamuna was there when the Mughal’ s built their forts, the British came to trade and stayed to rule and also when they went and the blood of partition brought   thousands from Pakistan who settled in Delhi. She was there when the Pandavas of the Mahabharat were in exile and she is there today.  This river has been able to endure much more than we give nature credit for. Maybe the fear we have of eroding her resources is just a perception based upon a limited exploration of our own expandable and enduring nature? It’s not that I condone the filth and stench. We certainly have to find the means to cleanse this water body; we must re-pay the debt of her life-sustaining water. But for me this exploration on the banks of the Yamuna has been more of an inspiration than a lament. The River has seen interesting times. Her nature is enduring, her muteness seems foolish yet, is also wise in thus accepting her designate role in life; flowing from one state to the next. Isn’t this the stuff that all our lives are made of?

[i] Kind of boat
[ii] Grey sand
[iii] Slipper[ed]
[iv] sludge
[v] Fuchsia pink
[vi] Iron bridge

Monday, 14 November 2011

Earl Grey and Other People

Earl Grey has a mildly citrus flavour and that fragrance of bergamot I so love. I’m referring to Earl Grey the tea and not Earl Grey who was the British prime minister in the 1800s, after whom this tea is named. Each tea bag has been filled with a specific quantity and variety of tea leaf, cultivated using a particular soil, grown in a particular climate and blended in a particular way to provide a specific flavour. We can have the same tea-leaf plucked at differing seasons to give a different flavour and blend of tea. The whole process of growing and blending tea is quite complex but I know what I like to drink. On most mornings it’s ‘Twinings Earl Grey’ that graces my tray.  I could write eulogies about its flavour and whatever else but I cannot change its nature and particular taste, nor expect it to do anything other than make tea. Well, soak in the heated water, so that I can make a cup of tea. 
Morning tea-time is inevitably a time of reflection on the previous day, unresolved thoughts left over from earlier in the week, and more. Tea, like most people and things around me, has become a kind of reference point to deal with many issues. I enjoy a variety of teas but when I pick Earl Grey, I know what to expect and do not expect it to taste like Japanese Sencha or Echinacea, nor want it to.

But, that is not what I seem to do with myself and also with other people. I have an inherent need for everything to be orderly and rational; expect everything to get done with a minimum of fuss. And most of all, in a state of being that is calm, never disturbed. It is when this does not happen, that I chide myself, wish things were different, that I had greater control over my emotions and the power to just breeze through life. I also wish that people around me [the way they behave] were other than what they are. There have been times when I’ve expected people to respond to circumstance in the way I would, thinking there cannot be another way, that as humans beings we must be the same. And if they didn’t, which inevitably did happen, I’d dissect the whole thing and after venting, when the mind was calmer, I’d see how my expectations were not reasonable. Gradually I started realizing that the beauty of life actually lay in this diversity of being. And others were only reflecting ideas that lay latent in my mind, surprisingly unknown to me.
Even as we are essentially the same, the nature of being human appears to be a complex phenomenon. We are different aspects of the same, have the same essential spirit, but are never the same. Being so, would defy the very nature of the duality of being. Just as tea comes basically from the two main species of the Camellia family, grown in China and India, we are all of the same species of Homo sapiens. But just like there are many hybrids of these two tea bushes, we humans too have differing characteristics within the same species. Not everyone is sensitive, compassionate, stubborn or selfish. Some of all human tendencies must be prevalent in each one of us, but in varying degrees, and each of us has certain defining characteristics. Some of which are genetic, some are learned, and some are cultural and environmental. It can get quite confusing because each of us has so many layers of familial and cultural histories that frame our being and thinking, but drawing this parallel with tea enables one to look at things more objectively.  And this morning, it was a refreshing reminder to start off the day. 

Taking this analogy with tea a little further, I thought, if I do not like someone – the way they taste, what I mean is - the experience of being with them, then all that is required is to not drink that flavour again. Seems simple ha!
But with people it is another story altogether. It’s been said that what occurs in life is what we have manifested by virtue of our feelings. Now that is a tough one. There’s no-one to blame for the people you bring into your life, including the family you were born into. We have supposedly felt a certain way, harboured certain ideas and therefore these people are there to create that particular experience. And unlike dumping a tea bag into the bin, or leaving a cup of tea half-drunk if I don’t like it, with people it pans out differently. We have to go through the experience. Understand its significance in our lives and in defining us by looking at the reflection it presents: of what I appear to be and think or feel and so on and so forth. Each experience has been a process in realizing the deeper truths of my being; understanding people better and handling life with less anxiety. Watching oneself live is a fascinating process. It’s also hard work. And even though this has been a daily discipline for years, the process is not quite fool-proof yet. I still lament having to extricate myself out of painful circumstances. And I ask myself, why? Why do you keep doing this? Asking no-one in particular, but perhaps my deeper sub-consciousness, whether it ever stops: these mistakes – the missed-takes that I don’t seem to get past?

Tea is an important ritual in my life, a refreshing drink at best, sometimes nourishing too. However, I can live without tea. But people, on the other hand, are not so easy to dismiss. Some yogis and spiritual aspirants do seem to eschew involved relationships but as long as one lives [unless you retire into some remote forest with only wild animals for company] human relationships seem to be the fulcrum of life. Without them there is nothing to do. Just imagine being born on earth and there being no-one else around. Who would teach you how to walk or talk, prod you into yelling, allowing you to experience that emotion of anger? Who would move you to tears, to write verse of love and longing? Compare yourself with? Compete with and more? Who would you fight with? [Imagine there being no Mahabharata, especially its sagacious wisdom on the art of asserting your truth/dharma as outlined in the Gita]. Seems pretty awesome, to consider this emptiness: the futility of a life without the noise one usually bitches about. But then the question arises: why is living with people such an arduous experience? A life-time can go past and one still doesn’t quite know what to make of people, even those close to you, with whom you may have spent the better part of your life.
It’s not easy for most, but when you are sensitive and intense, it’s especially hard to succinctly communicate the fullness of what you see and feel in any given circumstance. So one’s emotions tend to get into a mess. In order to extricate one self from this, most of us have to argue, discuss, think and re-define ideas before we can move on. This I have to confess I do find irksome. Why does it take so much time and energy just to get simple points across? But there is no question of avoiding these confrontations. Sometimes, we think we do: we all talk of moving on but the fact is that we re-create circumstances that generate similar feelings unless we have dealt with them. The faces may change but unless realization dawns of what it is that we do and why, things never really change.
Sometimes, strangely, I’ve forgotten what I have been capable of feeling in relation to a particular situation and or person and returned with gusto that I’ve regretted. When there is a distance, when the pain or irritation is a dull memory, it seems as if I’ve dreamt up the whole thing. But people don’t change, most don’t even grow up. What I mean is that we all age, but don’t necessarily become emotionally mature. Overcoming our pain and negative feelings is hard work. So at best our cries get muffled, consequently creating complex, un-de-code-able, irrational behaviour patterns that are difficult to live with. Living without people is not an option; living harmoniously with them takes a great deal of skill; balancing the inner, emotional landscape while also managing our interactions on the physical plane. Living together, I have realized is an art, perhaps the greatest of all human endeavour. 
If the teas leaves bound together in this small, almost opaque paper bag, whose brew I now sip, could speak, I wonder what they would say about their experiences of dealing with the logistics of compassion and compromise, so essential to a happy co-existence in any limited space.


This story is also available as an audio recording on You Tube, recorded by Suraj Andrews