Monday, 24 December 2012

The 2.00 am Shadows

Its Sunday, I usually lie in but woke up early today. Actually, I woke up at 2.00 am and oddly, started taking photographs of shadows, of various things around my bedside, created by the soft yellow light I had switched on to drink some water. Thereafter I did not go back to sleep. I tried, but in doing yoga nidra, so that I could relax and get back to sleep I started meditating but, did fall asleep eventually. When I woke up, the first thing I wanted to do was to pick up the camera and examine photos of the scene which had mesmerised me in that half asleep state. 
But, I first made a pot of tea to accompany this exercise. I used Orange Pekoe Darjeeling tea leaves with a dash of Nilgiri. They worked well together. The warm, afternoon flavour of a southern Nilgiri complemented the rather smoky flavour of the north Indian Orange pekoe. I drank my tea, listening to Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor, which is utterly soulful and the sombre cello appropriately reflective of my introspective mood. On most occasions it moves me to tears.  The second movement of the concerto – Adagio ma non troppo[i] is my favourite part. In this 1978 recording I listened to, it is played by the renowned Russian Cellist Mstislav Rostropovich[ii] with the London  Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Carla Maria Guilini. This flawless, incredibly moving performance by Rostropovich is considered one of the greatest recordings of the twentieth century.
 [I could not find this Rostropovich recording on the net, but this is a fabulous rendition of Dvorak's Adagio by Jaqueline du Pre]
The sublime adagio was written by Dvorak in memory of his pupil Josefina whom he had fallen in love with but who became his sister-in-law, not his wife. His deep affection for her remained and it was news of her failing health that changed the tenor of this concerto, which had started as an essay in retrospection of landscapes, to that of lost loves. The melody moves poignantly from its initial rustic flavour to that of a lover’s anguish. Written in New York in the winter of 1894-95, the Czechoslovakian composer’s passionate melodic outburst includes traces of an earlier composition – a song favoured by Josefina. This sad story always heightens my appreciation of the heart rending music it inspired. This morning, it complimented my soulful mood, allowing me to wallow.

It was September, we had not had much rain this monsoon but it did rain last night, after a long dry spell. The heavens poured and when I woke in the middle of the night, I stood awhile just observing the clouds shed their elongated tears as the earth soaked it all in. After this downpour the sun was out today but, the tone of the day was somehow still melancholic. I lit a candle, in a caddy, to heat up few drops of geranium essential oil for an uplifting fragrance. And then, picked up my point and shoot Olympus camera and studied the photographs I had taken while half asleep in the wee hours of the morning.

It was the same scene I had photographed also around 11.35 pm - of the shadow contours of a tray, a light and wires, created by the bedside light behind them, onto the granite floor, drawing me into the darkness, lines and textures of the imagery. The colour tones are all shades of brown - from almost golden to raw sienna, dark umber and the dark grey of the lamp that I use, when I embroider at night. It has a fluorescent tube which helps balance the otherwise predominantly yellow incandescent light in the room. It helps me work better with coloured threads if the light is neither yellow nor fluorescent. This lamp has a long horizontal, tubular shade to house the tube, but looks different in the shadow where it resembles something akin to an upright vase, with a short stand and then an equally short, but tubular receptacle rising vertically above it. It’s an odd shape. 
On the low, marble bed-side table lays an aluminium framed raffia tray with wobbly metal handles on either side. It is an old tray; gifted one Diwali long ago, filled with nuts and chocolates. I now use it to hold the night water-thermos and sundry stuff on my bedside. There is also a wicker waste-paper basket in the vicinity of the bedside paraphernalia and, in the near darkness of the night-photos I am drawn into the odd shapes and patterns of this scene which also features my Reeboks.  They, however, are not creating any shadows. Although slightly yellowed by the light, the otherwise white and blue of the shoe design is clearly visible. It is mostly the heel and contour of the base that is seen. Their lighter colour adds depth to the shadows and the contrast highlights their presence in the picture. I notice they are positioned as if someone had just taken a couple of footsteps.  

The warm tone of shadows around this is comforting even though the forms and the darker hues are disconcerting. More than anything else what perplexes me is that this scene is something which I must see every night, so what is the sudden attraction? Why did I take pictures at 11.35 pm and then also wake up at 2.00 am and take some more? The question of what was I trying to tell myself, by drawing my attention to this incongruous imagery, prompted much thought as I drank a pot full of Nilgiri and Orange Pekoe tea.

 The robust blend of tea and its colour are reciprocated by the warm tones of the granite floor lit at night. Golden tones of brown have replaced an otherwise dull, reddish hue, of pale, washed-out burnt sienna, mottled with blackish dots. It is not my most favourite floor but Ansal’s had built the apartment with this flooring when I bought it and changing it would have been an extravagance. I was also short of time as I had to move in quickly, so the not-so-nice floor tiles stayed.
They form a dark but monochromatic canvas of some oddly shaped daubs, amid flatter shapes which are not much more than blobs, or something that I imagine someone called Jackson Pollock-Cezanne may have created, where ‘Pollockian’ paint daubs have been flattened in a ‘Cezannesque’ manner. Even though I do not quite appreciate the design, I have to admit that at 2.00 am they made a perfect backdrop, with their motley dots and flattened daubs, for the sharp, dark, black shadows that fell upon them. 

This contrast is offset by the softer raffia weave of the night-tray which is complimented by the raffia of the wicker basket, and all together it is quite a picture. The Reeboks are placed as if I had just taken them off. This is odd, as I have been swimming and therefore could not have worn them for a while. Is this merely a coincidence, or something that alludes to someone about to run away from the scene? Or maybe it could be an indication of someone walking into it? My shoes, at home, on a night that I cannot sleep and am taking photographs at 2.00 am, is certainly not a coincidence.

 I have learned from years of watching my mind of ‘funny’ things that happen when I do not spend enough time looking at my thoughts. It’s like those weird dreams we sometimes have where everything is jumbled up and seems fantastical, even surreal. The message, however, is not lost on me. At that time of the night, what can I possibly run from but myself? But is that ever realistically possible? And the fact that I meditated for much of the remainder of the night tells me that I did not succeed. But I am really not much wiser this morning and the photos compel me to think.

I have been busy. The last couple of weeks have been hectic. Something or the other needs attention, or so I tell myself, even as I know that mostly what really needs attention is in my mind. I have observed how much my thoughts are responsible for whatever is going-on in the external world, in my life as it unfolds but, still, I seem to be avoiding something. Tricky and discomfiting, but true. 

I understand; I am aware of how things work but feel the resistance nonetheless. I have used my mind for all sorts of tense situations this past week and I really do not want to do more mental work at this point. I’d much rather focus on Dvorak’s lost love, and listen to his heart wrenching anguish than do some deep analysis of my own thoughts. Neither am I silent enough to ‘feel’ things beyond the emotional. In such a scenario, pushing myself only succeeds in getting me to switch on the internet and play scrabble on Facebook instead. Or play detective and study the ‘crime scene’, examining unattractive floor tiles in my apartment, as I have done for the better part of this morning. 

However, this exercise has not been such a waste of time. Through a preliminary study of the photographs and reflections, I realise it is not the shadows that have much to say. They set the tone by highlighting the shoes which suggested someone could be entering, leaving or something along those lines. I know I should do some serious contemplation. A little coaxing always helps and its amazing how in that half-asleep state, I took photos which intrigued, leading to ruminations on the granite canvas, to realise that everything was not quite under control as I had thought when I turned in, to sleep last night.

Fascinating as the subtle nuances of life can be, sometimes I just do not want to go deeper and I do get my moments of reprieve. But, then, just like with these ‘2.00 am shadows’, some unseen energy finds a way to nudge me to into paying more attention to my thoughts and not sleep-walk through life.


[i] Slow but not too slow
[ii] died recently, in April 2007

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Sewing Histories

From 10th century Bayeux[i] to 21st century Gurgaon is a very long journey. One I embarked upon while researching embroidery practices that could have influenced my own. Jawaharlal Nehru once said that India’s history could well be defined by the history of Indian textiles. I think he was right. India’s textile diversity and heritage is unsurpassed in the world, its history full of intriguing socio-political implications. These amazing fabrics have been a source of admiration and significant trade with ancient Greece up to present day exports. As a textile artist, I draw upon them for inspiration, as much as focussing upon a concern for the eroding value of crafting practices that gave us these superlative textiles.
 It’s been primarily my work with craftspeople which inspired me to espouse the role of artist-craftsperson. I specialized in woven textiles, but have worked with embroidery for almost two decades now. Until recently, I had not looked beyond traditions of the subcontinent to understand its practice in India, aside from some curiosity regarding the flourishing international trade and induction of British, Portuguese and Chinese motifs. What has interested me is the concept of crafting, with its deep roots in the art making of ancient India, which predates these travellers and subsequent trade. Working with the hand interests me even though we live in a fast-paced age, driven by mechanical and digital technologies, in many ways because it provides a counterpoint.
It’s been said that the hand inspires the ‘mechanical’ technologies invented. Whatever machines do is what the human hand has made first. William Morris’s[ii] lament and the ideologies of the arts and crafts movement[iii] were based on loss of excellence in design owing to the inferior capacity of machines, at the beginning of the industrial age. But, as technology improved so did the product of machines, and today, in Japan many fabrics made with advanced technologies possibly have no precedent with what the hand has done. Many such ideals have been disproved in time but history enables one to unravel stories of what people thought and did to examine their influence on what we do today.
It can be a fascinating journey is what I realized in my quest to discover the cross-stitch connection in my art. Two textile artist friends, Elaine from Boston and Maggie from Perth, strongly recommended reading ‘The Subversive Stitch’ by Roszika Parker. I got a copy from and commenced reading with much anticipation as soon as it arrived. But, I was disappointed. There was little mention of cross-stitch and its inclusion in contemporary stitch vocabulary. I was nonetheless intrigued how art history[iv] had categorised everything that women are and do, as being “entirely and essentially feminine” regardless of economic or social position, especially with regard to embroidery.
Apparently, it was the Victorian[v] interpretation of mediaeval[vi] embroideries which led to this thinking. Mediaevalism permeated every aspect of Victorian culture. Of particular interest were mid-century religious revivals where embroideries for the church formed a significant part. This created opportunity to chide women for their decadence, for having regressed from embroidering devotional motifs to pretty flowers and more in the same vein. Mediaeval revival[vii] enhanced the Victorian perception of women as the frail sex, untouched by intellect. But not without contradictions: they, who were at the mercy of their physical weakness and volatile feelings, were also meant to provide the spiritual face of their class thus occupying a ‘higher’, ‘purer’ sphere than men.
This perception provided some misleading interpretations of history. The legendary Bayeux tapestry[viii] was cited as the work of a loving wife rather than the collective endeavour it was. This 270 feet x 20 inches tapestry [circa 1086] was supposedly embroidered, single-handedly by Queen Mathilda, wife of William the Conqueror[ix]; a herculean, if not impossible task. Thus Mathilda became a source of inspiration and fantasy. Historians, including women, presented her as an ideal for perfect Victorian femininity – working in private, for love. Her glory, a reflection of her husband’s and reward coming after only death. The image of the mediaeval noblewoman embroiderer became ossified into a stereotype: “Immured in the restricted walls of a convent; needle alone supplied an unceasing source of amusement; with this she might enliven tedious hours, and depicting heroic deeds of her absent lord...... softened by the influence of pious contemplation, she might use this pliant instrument to bring vividly before her mind the mysteries of that faith to which she clung”[x].
With years of colonialism and influences thereby, there is a possibility these ideas could somehow have found their way into the Indian cultural psyche, which got me thinking. In re-examining the reasons why I choose to embroider, I wondered, whether somewhere deep in my socio-cultural make-up, I was drawn to this because it’s been considered ‘women’s work’. To the best of my knowledge it was men who did the embroidery work in India, especially in the professional karkhanas[xi] but, in the Western world, the embroiderer became part of the feminine stereotype. Eyes lowered, head bent, shoulders hunched - characteristic posture of a person sewing became symbolic of repression and subjugation.  
In addition, silence, as stillness of the embroiderer, was interpreted as either serious concentration or a cry for attention.  In terms of the stereo-type, the self-containment of the sewing woman was interpreted as seductiveness, a sexual ploy. In some cases the silence of a woman bent over her needlework was cited as submissiveness or deference to men. And some interpretations also cite the image of the embroiderer deep in her work as disturbing: “Bel-Gazou is silent when she sews, silent for hours on end, with her mouth firmly closed ............She is silent, and she – why not write down the word that frightens me – she is thinking”[xii]

My curiosity was stoked. This ‘historical’ power of silence whilst engaged in embroidering intrigued me. That evening, I focused on what I thought and felt while rummaging through colourful skeins, threading the needle and piercing the cloth with it. For me, none of these ideas had a conscious connection, nor made any sense. I love the coloured threads and ritual of embroidery. I find pleasure in the whole process and could not relate to this as being indicative of subjugation or the subversive rebellion Victorian’s associated with the woman embroiderer. It did not seem to fit. Women do face sexual discrimination in India, so it did occur to me that this could have become second skin to an extent that, despite the socio-cultural implications of being a woman in India, I was unaware of it.  
Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, one of three sisters with no brother, I personally did not face discrimination in any overt way. I know my parents wanted a son for my father had picked out a name, which was eventually given to my elder sister’s youngest son. Since we did not have a brother I cannot evaluate if we were treated different to men. My father was determined that I learn to drive a car and also typing for he believed that the future was all about computers, but we were not really educated with a career in mind. My elder sister was married when she was twenty and so was I. It was an unsuccessful ‘arranged’ marriage and divorce at 22 years of age that brought a career into focus.
My mother was the only girl child of a not-so-conservative Punjabi family living in Delhi, with three, protective, doting elder brothers who rarely allowed her out of their sight. She did a B-Ed[xiii] and taught briefly but chose not to work professionally after marriage. My mother was born in 1932 and I, almost thirty years later. Times had changed, but many things get passed on subconsciously. However, to my knowledge, my predilection for embroidery could have little to do with this. Of us three sisters, I was the only one who took to it from an early age. Maybe my Irish convent[xiv] education inadvertently influenced this, but I do not recollect the nuns teaching us needlework. Whatever discriminations one may face being a woman in this country or in the world, it is neither this idea nor a rebellion to assert the converse which inspires me to embroider. Aside from pleasure in working the materials, it is the ritual of making - seeking to emulate ideals of hand-crafting, prevalent in art practices of ancient India, which motivate me to ‘paint’ with the needle.

Most professional embroidery done in this country, even historically, is and has been done by men. I conducted workshops in Kashmir in 2003 and 2004 for chain-stitch embroidery and the craftsmen were primarily men. Women had recently been inducted but, lacking skill in the craft, their work was gauche by comparison. The fine Sozni[xv] workers are also men. Chain stitch or ‘Ari’ work, which is the mainstay repertoire of most fashion designers in the country, is done almost exclusively by men. But with Kantha[xvi], Chikankari[xvii] and other embroideries women do now work professionally too.

The subcontinent has a rich history in embroidery. Earliest needles excavated at Mohenjo Daro[xviii] dated about 2000 BC indicate a tradition of sewing and the possibility of embroidery. There are early references to the reign of Chandragupta Maurya[xix], where Megasthenes[xx] the Greek Ambassador from Seleucus[xxi] describes richly embroidered interiors and shimmering dresses embellished with gold. The earliest chain-stitch embroideries are said to have evolved from embroideries done by the Mochi[xxii] community in Gujarat and accounts by Marco Polo[xxiii] mention exquisitely embroidered leather carpets. Later, the Portuguese traveller Duarte Barbosa[xxiv] makes note of fine chain-stitch silk embroideries in reference to the beautiful quilts of Cambay[xxv]. According to noted textile historian Rosemary Crill, there are few societies in which embroidery played as important a role as in India, be it our rural tradition for dowry, wedding paraphernalia or the courts of Mughals and other ruling elite. Embroidered textiles have adorned carved stone halls as well dressed nobility. And a thriving trade made Indian textile products famous for two millennia where embroidery was at the forefront of our rich textile tradition.                                                  

Men, more than women, in ancient India embroidered textiles and this prevails even today. The notions of femininity that categorised the embroiderer in the Western world arose because it suited Victorians to read history as such. They chose to highlight a specific role of women in the practice of this craft, when men were as much a part of European embroidery guilds and there was no significant division of labour either.
Through the long British rule in India ideas regarding embroidery as essentially women’s work, along with its implications of subjugation and subversion, must have percolated somewhere into urban Indian thinking. I have been city bred through and through and cannot claim influence of a rural Indian culture where women embroidered, making things for their home and personal use. There is a possibility that the Victorian ideas, and their impact on generations before me, could be buried somewhere deep in my subconscious mind. However, working with embroidery for me, has been about a conscious return to an ancient Indian tradition.
I draw inspiration from this tradition of crafting which nourished the ‘whole being’ “Corpus anima et Spiritus.”[xxvi] My embroidery is creative self-expression. Working with my hands is meditative. The process engenders a balance of inner and outer worlds and is an important source of solace. I have worked with craftsmen in rural India, where the simplicity of their lives impacted me deeply. I also found that though their skill continues, they are dependent upon urban designers for the creative input. This relegates them to becoming merely skilled labour, moving away from the traditional, dual role of the craftsperson as designer-producer. Their remuneration is pittance compared to what those who employ their skills earn and also the income of other professionals today. My endeavour is an attempt to restore a lost dignity to the notion of crafting by becoming a craftsperson-artist myself. Presenting this work in the art gallery is a means to bridge the prevalent art-craft divide which not only diminishes the ‘art’ of textile making that framed an important dimension of our cultural heritage, but one that could curtail  the continuance of this inherited glory.

[i] Normandy, France
[ii] 1834-1936
[iii] Design movement pioneered by  William Morris that flourished 1860-1910, its influence continuing up until 1936
[iv] Research done in 1981
[v] Period of Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 – 1901 was a long period, of peace, prosperity and national confidence [for the British]. Culturally there was an inclination towards romanticism and mysticism with regard to religion, social values and the acts. The Victorian era is also associated with values of social and sexual restraint.
[vi] 5th to 15th centuries [Middle Ages – end of Classical antiquity or collapse of Western Roman Empire to beginning of Renaissance]
[vii] Begun late 1830’s
[viii]  Is an embroidered cloth not an actual tapestry, which depicts events leading up to the Norman conquest of England, culminating in the Battle of Hastings. It contains about 50 scenes embroidered on linen with coloured woollen yarns.
[ix] Was the first Norman King of England, reigning from 1066 till his death in 1087                                                        
[x] Parker, The Subversive Stitch pg 24, [quoting from C. H Hartshorne, op.cit. p3]
[xi] workshops
[xii]Parker, the subversive Stitch pg  9-10 [quoting from Colette, ‘Earthly Paradise’ 1966 p.205]
[xiii] Bachelors in Education
[xiv] Loreto Convent, Tara Hall, Shimla
[xv] Fine needle embroidery done mostly on shawls, Kashmir
[xvi] Traditionally it is basically a running stitch embroidery [with some variations] on layered fabrics [usually old and worn sarees] creating a quilted effect , done in Bihar [Sujni] and Bengal [Kantha]
[xvii] Chikan [derived from Persian word ‘Chikeen‘], literally means embroidery.   It is a traditional embroidery style from Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh and a variety of stitches [36] are used to create a kind of Jaali [lace or shadow work] effect. It is usually done on transparent or semi-transparent fabrics like muslin, mostly white on white.
[xviii] Now in Pakistan
[xix] 320BC -298 BC
[xx] Greek explorer and ethnographer of the Hellenistic period
[xxi] Approximately sometime before  his death in 298 BC
[xxii] cobblers
[xxiii] Travels, late 13th Century
[xxiv] 1518
[xxv] Now called Khambat [Gujarat]
[xxvi] Mind, body and spirit - Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

O Lord White as Jasmine [Signature line from poetry of 12th century poet Mahadeviyakka]

The previous day had been a challenging one, especially the morning half of it.  My inner disturbance was predictably reflected in what went on around me and trying to grapple with myself took better part of the day. I did however, reclaim the day. I went, as planned, to see a show at Lado Sarai and on the way did some chores too, which was heartening.  

I walked into Gallery Threshold and some bells, a rather persistent tinkling, announced my arrival. Tunty came out of her office and walked me through the ongoing exhibition by the artist V Ramesh. The first tier consisted of paintings that referenced the oneness of being, wherein there were some rather realistic, painterly renditions of fruit – jackfruit or kathal, pomegranate and bananas with a reference to the idea that their form was reflective of the human body. In ‘This is it’, a large [60 x 80”] oil on canvas, three stalks laden with bananas were hyper-realistically drawn, magnifying each  mark and detail of form and colour. On the extreme right the fruit was ripe, ready to be eaten. On the central stalk, it was peeled as if about to be eaten and on the far right, the stalk was devoid of fruit, implying that all the bananas had been devoured, picked or fallen off the branch. Part of a human skeleton, from pelvis up to the ribs, was drawn over this stalk. The imagery seemed like a metaphor for life, wherein I inferred that the life of a banana was not really that different from the journey of life as a human being. Born, ripening, sharing, giving of oneself and then upon death, only our bare bones remain, waiting to be interred or buried.  

The lower floor of the gallery, had massive, floor to ceiling canvasses that obsessively dealt with poems of the fourteenth century Kashmiri saint Lal Ded, to the ‘vacanas’ of Akka Mahadevi, a twelfth century [Shiva] Bhakti saint-poet of south India. These canvasses were more abstract in nature and focussed on a single poem by each of the poets. Somehow, Tunty expected a response from me that evoked her own passion for these works. A long discussion ensued, compelling me to focus upon the works and the one painting that stayed with me through the rest of the day was ‘Pining for an Absent Lover’ based on Akka Mahadevi’s longing for her ‘Lord, white as Jasmine’, or ‘Mallikarjuna’, as the legendary Shiva is also referred to. A large canvas, [96x72”] in dark hues of brown and black, with just a hint of white and some flower buds, was covered with these words in multiple layers:
“Like a silkworm weaving                 
  her house with love
  from her marrow,
                                  and dying
 in her body’s threads
 winding tight, round,
 and round
                                        I burn
desiring what the heart desires
Cut through, O Lord,
my heart’s greed,
and show me
your way out,
O Lord white as jasmine.”

 Most of the verse was barely visible; the tone of brown it was written with was overshadowed by strokes, textures and marks in black, grey and browns. The only line that was somewhat clearly visible was “O Lord white as jasmine.” [Akka Mahadevi used this as her ‘signature’ or ‘ankita’ in all her poems]. This appeared in fragments, visible intermittently, all over the large, dull and dark expanse, written in white.  On the right hand, bottom quarter of the canvas, in a burst of white, which seemed symbolic of light, the artist had painted a woman, sitting in a meditative posture, clearly in a trance, her long tresses covering her naked body. This light was surrounded by thorn-like lines and a great deal of dark colour. The rest of the canvas was cloudy, dark; with restless marks overlaying the text with glimpses of red or yellow. And then flowers were strewn across the surface as if showering the divine, but the blooms appeared only occasionally. These were painted in the same realistic style as the bananas and pomegranates I had seen earlier. This painting was odd. I did not feel reassured, or sublime. I could not respond without the intellectual process of looking, analyzing and mentally engaging with the work to find some empathy in its sense of struggle - of dealing with darkness and then lightening of this sombre mood – transcending it. The painting itself may not have conveyed much, but I came away intrigued by the idea of an artist working so obsessively on a few lines of a single verse.  When I got home, later that night, I searched my library, for ‘Speaking of Siva’[i], and read through some fifty verses by Mahadeviyakka[ii].

 The poems were evocative of her struggle with her body, being a woman and how social conditioning confined her in her quest for ecstasy. She is said to have roamed, in a gesture of defiance, with only her long tresses as cover for her naked body, seeking the love of the Lord and kindred spirits. I had bought the book five years ago in October 2007, after attending a poetry workshop organized by Caferati in New Delhi. Professor Shivaprakash, who conducted the workshop, had informed us that ‘vacana’ was possibly the earliest known form of free verse where the poet went directly to the heart of experience, to create new words for self expression. The idea had interested me then but I did not relate as much to the obsession with Siva and this has not changed. However, re-looking at the ‘vacanas’ did lead to some reflection.

The saint poets pursued their spiritual ideals by obsessively invoking ‘lord Shiva’ through their verse. Bhakti or intense love for God is an important aspect of Hinduism of the post-Vedic period, possibly beginning with the Bhagavad Gita. I was born into the Hindu tradition of idol worship and my maternal grandmother was a devout Krishna Bhakt[iii].  One would often find her talking to her two- feet tall, murti[iv] of Krishna, bathing and dressing him and singing bhajans[v] with a great deal of shraddha[vi]. I recollect one evening some thirty-five years ago, my grandfather and I had stood outside her mandir[vii] in their summer home in Shimla, listening to her sing and when she saw her husband standing there she blushed a beetroot red, hiding her face in the dupatta that was usually draped over the top and back of her head.  I could never understand this bashfulness, especially after having given birth to four of his children and neither could I relate to this devotion to a stone statue. I recollect my own mother, following the same ritual of doing aarti[viii]; singing ‘Aum jai jagdish hare’[ix] twice a day, sometimes in such a hurried way, it sounded nothing like a devout prayer.

The bhakti tradition in India encourages worship of deities in the form of murtis or sculptures, but I personally do not conform to this even as I do find myself often folding my hands in front of statues if I do visit a temple. I have a couple of them in my meditation room. They were gifts and I did not really know what else to do with them, so they lie there and I clean and use them for the traditional puja at Diwali. It’s complicated. Inherited ideas regarding faith make it complex and I find myself constantly re-defining its parameters for myself.

In that last two years a statue, being constructed by some locals in Chauma Village in the Palam Vihar region, grew to its full height of 64 feet and a larger than life Shiva, snake coiled around his neck, a Trishul[x] reaching for the skies and accessories traditionally associated with Shiva stood before my eyes. It does not face me but with its back to the East, faces West, or possibly even South west which means that I see the right side of the Shiva statue’s profile. As I draw up the blinds each morning, this is pretty much the first thing I see and often during the day, as I look into the expanse beyond it, in a moment of contemplation, my eyes rest on this bronzed cement statue. Prior to this, when I lived in Friends Colony, there had also been a small Shiva temple, constructed by Dhirendra Brahmachari, a close associate of Indira Gandhi, just two doors down. And even though I was not a devout Hindu, I took to visiting this temple each day on my way home from an evening walk. It may have something to do with the fact that my mother would regularly visit a Shiva temple and chadao jal[xi] on the linga[xii] that somehow it got passed on, like traditions do, or maybe it was the proximity of the temple and the need for a crutch that led me to doing the same for a while.

 The idea of Shiva does intrigue and looking at this visage each day has generated more than just causal curiosity. There are many stories surrounding this unusual being, typified as the God of destruction. Part of the Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, his place in the pantheon has had a chequered history where his innocent but angry nature has earned him much affection as also alienation. For me it is the idea of a God imbued with such human traits that endears. He loved with a passion and carried mementoes of his lost loves around his neck as a mundmala[xiii]. He was an ascetic with a volatile temper but found compassion when he finally gave into Parvati’s[xiv] pursuit of him and married her. He was brusque and not very finessed, but even so he is a prominent Hindu deity today.
After reading the ‘vacanas’, I went to sleep thinking about what I had read. The next morning I was sitting quietly in the kitchen waiting for some water to boil. There was no-one in the apartment, except for me. The silence of this part of the morning, of quietude carried over from a night of restful sleep and the early morning calm, is something I cherish. This morning, I tuned into the drone of the washing machine and microwave oven whirring simultaneously and wondered about objects of worship. I thought: if we can pray to a stone statue and find God or a connection with God through this, why could not these sounds I was hearing at this point, be as evocative of the same God?
Why is it only in birdsong and a river gushing down the stream that we think of as connecting us with God? Why is it that machines, which have been invented by men, who are also part of the same spirit, therefore also evocative of God, not worshipped? And then I remembered Vishvakarma the 'divine' engineer of the universe who is worshipped each year, the day after Diwali, when it is customary for all factory workers and craftsmen to worship their tools in his name. But is it the same thing I wonder.

I rather like the idea of worshipping everything from men, women, trees, rivers and birds to tools of one’s trade, but somehow feel that most of this is done as part of a ritual rather than any realized veneration.  In essence we need to find ways to find our connection with God or spirit through everything we do each day. In ancient India, everything was designated an art because it was not what the activity was but how it was done. It was the level of devotion which imbued everything- from cooking, kissing or weaving that made it an art. I guess the key to this would be to find the silence within, however we do, and then keep that as we go through the day, living with awareness of how everything is really just an extension of one’s own being and it really does not matter which path we walk. What matters is that we stay connected and feel empowered by this, writing poetry, walking naked in the forests or painting words on a canvas. 

What matters is not what we do, but how we experience life through it, to arrive at the ideal where everything, every experience is accepted with utmost faith.  This ultimate human endeavour is easier said than done, where as Akka Mahadevi wrote: 

“If sparks fly
  I shall think my thirst and hunger quelled
  If the skies tear down
  I shall think them pouring for my bath.
If a hillside slide on me
I shall think it flower for my hair.
O lord white as jasmine,
if my head falls from my shoulders
I shall think it your offering.”[xv]

[i] Penguin Classics ,translated by A.K Ramanujan
[ii] Akka Mahadevi [another way of addressing this saint poet]
[iii] devotee
[iv] statue
[v] Hymns/songs of devotion to God
[vi] devotion
[vii] temple
[viii] A prayer that is sung during an offering of light to the deity - a plate with lighted candles[diyas] is circled before the statue of the deity
[ix] Hail the lord of all creation/God
[x] Trident
[xi] Pouring milk mixed with water
[xii] Shivling/ lingam – representation of the HIndu deity Shiva used for worship in temples. The lingam has been interpreted as a symbol of male creative energy or the phallus and is represented with the yoni, a symbol of thegoddess r Shakti, female emergy. The union of lingam and yoni represents the indivisible " two-in-oneness of male and female, from whinc all life originates"
[xiii] Necklace of skulls
[xiv] Shiva’s consort
[xv]  Verse 65, translated from Kannada by A. K Ramanujan. Penguin classics pg 102