As I write this on the train to and from New York, it occurred to me that, in India, it would be unfathomable that I would spend time on a train looking at my computer screen rather than out the window. In India, even the most seemingly mundane or incidental activity could be cause for active engagement, a chance to frame and share the experience. Facebook, which I had not regularly used before, became a daily diary that allowed me unfold my story slowly, morning by night, day by day. Usually, I come home and people ask “how was India?” and I want to say, “Do you have six months to sit and let me tell you?” Away from my regular responsibilities, in India, the internal dialogue that is often detached from what is actually occurring around me, muted by familiarity and routine, became sharpened with a refreshed and heightened attention to the present.
Without constrictions of time, I could follow unlikely paths that beckoned, or wait out a storm in a tiny chai shop not annoyed at being lost or frustrated by a seeming waste of time. I could see everything as an adventure, an opportunity, a chance to talk to a stranger, a chapter in time which, until nearly the moment I left for home, seemed filled without end. Without reason, destination, or errands to run, mostly relying on my feet than my car, I would go out to just look, and to look again, enjoying creating categories of imagery in an attempt to organise the uncontainable. Some of these, such as the palimpsest of layered signs, something I became aware - upon my return - does not exist in the US, where a “post no bills” sign actually is obeyed, have developed into upcoming projects for my studio art classes.
As I continue to deepen my knowledge about India and Indian art, inspired and motivated by the Indian art course I teach at UConn and the paintings and videos I create as a practicing artist, what I am drawn to falls into places both rooted in prior experience and seen anew. Recognising that my students have been particularly drawn to my sense of connection with India, I began to create a series of short videos of devotional activities that I lecture about in class, things I have seen dozens of times on prior visits. An Aarti in the Swaminayaran temple in Ahmedabad, the haunting plaintive call to prayer at the Jama Masjid in Delhi, or a lyrical sacred song sung on Ganges. In these simple pieces, I am able to speak about history and tradition as well as how I experience it, primarily that which is so unusual in the Christian tradition which my students are most familiar with - the overlay of the sacred and every day, the ghats being shared with dhobi walls, chai vendors and pilgrims. How the Adhan or call to prayer envelops the bazaar neighbourhood of Old Delhi, how generations of people, aunties and young women with cell phones, gathered for the intense body-enveloping sound of the ringing bells of morning darshan. They also allow me to recapture in a more abstract way, the sensations, sounds and sights that arrested my senses before my intellect that, opened doors to knowledge as well as the deeper recesses of my heart and soul.
The sense of the mythic and ancient that many travellers are initially drawn to in India has always been paired, for me, with the intense force of the present. As I engage more fully in the contradictions and coalescence of past and present, I no longer find them as uncomfortable contrasts, or interferences, as I once did. In Orissa, my long anticipated view of Chauthyogini temple, the goddesses’ sacred space of power invaded by a bevy of workmen, disrupted my long sought out and perhaps naïve desire for a “moment of transcendence.” My feelings shifted from annoyance to amusement and, in the end, it was a far more memorable experience as a marker in my own time, rather than the mythic time of the monument. By contrast, my visits to the tiny Chausatti Devi in Varanasi hidden away on a side alley in that teeming city where one never expects to experience anything in solitude, feels like my private temple, and has to my gratitude, grounded me in times of need. It is then that I find myself exceedingly drawn to India for reviving my lapsed Catholic ability to experience the occasional moments of serenity, wonder and transformation that, in India are often just an instant away from earthly chaos.
Returning to places I know well, such as Varanasi, Ahmedabad or Goa, offered the comfort of familiarity, spending time with friends that have become family, enjoying shared memories and the most recent gossip over Goan feni, Indian rum or countless cups of chai. The familiar in this sense allowed for a needed sense of “normalcy”, the chance to sustain a regular structure of work time, writing, painting and video editing that, countered the exhaustion, numbness and jadedness that extensive travel can cause. Starting from a place of familiarity pushed me to look beyond what I thought I already
Along with unstructured time to absorb, collect and create, was the sense of purpose that has driven much of my work for the past two years, my “Regarding India” video series www.regardingindia.com. With several rewarding opportunities to show this work, I overcame a sense of caution foreigners often have in India, of seeming naïve, patronising, or “out of it”. Rather I was moved, encouraged and energised by the response to my work. With concern in respect of adding to the bulk of still unedited work, I still added a few new interviews to the series. Perhaps it was faith in my ability to sustain this work and an increased sense of confidence for I enjoyed the process more this time. My inquiry was more focused and I felt as if the artists I met - Dinesh, Waswo, Meera, Heidi and others - had become friends. I enjoyed as much reconnecting with people I met for the first time during the interviews, spending time with Ravi and Dorothea, and Jyotibai and Jyotsna.
I felt a significant shift as India ceased to be so much about place this time, and more about people. Surprisingly ambivalent with my decision to travel north, trips I so much enjoyed in the past, when it was time to depart, I started regretting not sitting out the May heat in the studios and kitchens of friends rather than negotiating the challenges and loneliness of solo travel. Loneliness used to be my frequent and comforting travel companion in India. I grew used to weeks of internal dialogue, but now I can choose not to be alone. Even in the very last hours before I left for home, suddenly sick with a new flu, friends came to visit me, Shelly and then Sundeep, and the night before I had experienced a convivial gathering of friends and a studio visit with Gopika, the beauty of whose work can only truly be appreciated up close, and I felt grateful for the opportunity to have this and other friendships grow.
It would have been tragic to not want to come home. When it was time to board the plane I was really ready as there is always a desire to unpack the experience, to regroup and plan for the next time. Nobody can live vicariously or virtually in another world. I have friends, family, a house, garden, job and history that I love, and love to come back to. But through my ability to come and go, I am inspired to try and make the best use of my dual sense of belonging by bringing what I can of India back here, and what I can bring from here, back to India, including art, friends, and the excitement of ideas.
Kathryn Myers is a Fulbright Scholar, a professor at University of Connecticut [UConn] and a painter, who has been a regular visitor to India, working on a video documentation of Indian Art and Artists. The video series can be see at www.regardingindia.com
Kathryn's paintings can be found on her website-