Thursday, 9 October 2014

Butterfly Wings

The alarm went off at 5.50 am, but it took me a while to get myself out of bed. I’m not the kind that jumps out of bed, charging into the day. No, this time of the day, those first few waking moments are when I am feeling totally connected with myself, in every way. And I want to know what is going on, what I am feeling, where in my body and why.  These are those precious moments when I am totally at peace with myself, regardless of what I am feeling. So, I allow myself those first 15-20 minutes to just feel the day. This morning was like any other in that respect as with the routine that followed.

I did some reiki, then stretching exercises, some meditation and made my breakfast. I drank my daily quota of two-and-a-half cups of morning tea [there’s no symbolism in that number, it’s just what the thermos will fill up with] and wrote in my journal. It’s usually time for some more elaborate yoga asanas after this, but, of late, I have felt like getting out and taking a walk. Now, 9.45 am on a mid-September Gurgaon morning, with the sun shining bright, is perhaps not the best hour of the day to take a morning walk but, I braved on, talking to myself as I walked step by step around the complex.

One of the best things about this later hour is that there is no-one else walking and I can talk to myself. Yes, talk to myself as in getting words out of my mouth, posing questions and waiting for the answers, looking for them in the trees and the breeze and otherwise just being attentive to my body. It’s amazing how things just come up. I walked quite briskly as I had written, in my journal, for longer than intended, and I was running late. And to be honest, even though there was a breeze and it wasn’t unpleasantly hot, it was getting close to 34 degrees Celsius with very little shade for most of the perimeter I walked. It was quite warm and getting hotter by the minute.

Anyway, absorbed in the dialogue started through the journal, I realised that talking to myself in this way was actually giving my fingers a rest. I walked and talked and towards the end of my half hour walk, I chanced upon a butterfly. It flitted right past my eyes, as I turned the pavement, around the park. It had possibly been busy with the flowers and decided to take a break, because it passed me and then swooped down onto the dark, blackish tarmac - the sharp contrast between the tar and its delicate beige wings, possibly showing it off, at its best.

For some reason it kept its wings tightly shut. I peered down, lowering my large frame by half and bending my knees, to take a look at those delicate markings of very fine lines, almost invisible really, of a light, cup-of-tea kind of brown, with very small dots of sepia sparsely patterning an otherwise plain pair of wings. Then, it opened its wings and I let out a gasp of delight. But it teased; it tempted and seduced with those beautiful colours and patterns, keeping them open only for nano seconds with long pauses in between. And between each opening, which seemed like such an age, my eyes waited to feast on its incredibly beautiful wings, on the inside.

I stilled myself despite the discomfiture of the posture, looking down on a creature no more than an inch in size, more than five-and-a half-feet below my normal sight. I prayed silently for it to open its wings and let me feast my eyes, but it wouldn’t relent. And then it did and closed them shut almost instantly. I stared with such intensity each time, noting the iridescent blue with a fringe of orange dots like burning embers of coal, on a jet-black border, with dancing silver and gold dots appearing here and there almost like beings of light – transparent and constantly moving. The orange centres of the dots were golden, like a halo of light inside the flaming orange. The orange that surrounded this yellowish circle, merged outwards, into scarlet red. And the contrast with black leading into a spectacularly electric blue was such a surprise after the dull beige on the outside that I was mesmerised. I stood for a long time, just looking at this spectacle, waiting for the butterfly to open its wings again.

I was lucky that no car drove past to spoil this for me but, frankly I couldn’t get enough. I was also a bit peeved that I hadn’t carried my phone with me because I could have tried to capture the colours on camera. But I like to balance the tech part of my life with occasionally leaving the phone behind while I walk. Therefore, I had to work hard, exercising my memory muscles to record every detail. I have to confess it was a refreshing change but it also means that I don’t have any photos to share with you on this post. The heat of the sun, the time of the day, everything was forgotten as I blissfully sweated on the tarmac, delighted by miniscule, delicate, feathery wings, seated in the vast empty expanse of rough stones coated with tar-coal, until it flew beyond my sight.

I straightened my back and resumed my walk to see all the drivers who were cleaning the cars, looking at me in the oddest way.  But I smiled because they hadn’t seen the sublime beauty I had been privy to; neither did I think they would understand what it meant, in this urban metropolis, to be treated to such a sight.

I had been reading books and hearing podcasts about angels and spirits and how they come to speak to us in the physical world, through butterflies and creatures of the earth, and more besides. So, coupled with this information and the unusual drama I had witnessed with the butterfly wings, my interest was piqued. For the remainder of my walk, I wondered why it had behaved so oddly. Was there a spiritual message in this for me?

Those wings were patterned in the most spectacularly unique way. It is not unusual to see butterflies on my walks around where I live, but this was no ordinary butterfly. I had never seen anything quite so beautiful, nor really ever seen the theatrics it displayed, in ever so reluctantly opening its wings. This made me wonder if somewhere that was a way to actually show them off to their best, to ensure that everyone’s attention was riveted. But are butterflies aware of people looking at them? Was it narcissistic and, knowing its beauty, teasing my senses? Or was it afraid of being exploited in some way because it was so incredibly stunning?

Yet, as though it was a messenger from the astral world, it stayed long enough and ensured it had got my attention. I was compelled, by my idiosyncratic habit of leaving the phone at home, to memorise the colours, patterns and ritual as enacted, which has somehow seeped into the very soul of my being. But I am still grappling with the message it carried, if indeed there was any, beyond the moment of delight I revelled in.

Indescribable splendour
Winged colours amaze
Butterfly away!

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Madhya Pradesh - Narratives of Self Discovery

The other day, I was staring up into the sky, my back on the water, as I finished my swim. I saw hundreds of birds flying here and there and here and there, randomly. Some would disappear into some crevice or other and then charge out as if on some urgent errand and there really was nowhere they were going, nor any pattern to their flight paths.

I am usually so driven with reasons for anything I do; conforming to a routine of doing rather than that of being. Watching the birds fly so aimlessly got me thinking - about this journey called life. Where do we go, what is it that we do or why and what is the purpose of it all? Are we any different to these other creatures of nature that fly the sky?

And, it was a trip to Madhya Pradesh that I undertook few months later, which seemed to put into perspective the kind of travel that one does through life – of savouring the little things that come up.  I started seeing that it was in essence only about the journey, the people we meet, the sites we encounter and the images we form in our minds.  Can there be any other point? Yes, I know there is the existential quest of who am I, but can that ever be examined without the experiences we encounter; and then what?

Anyway, let me tell you about this journey to Madhya Pradesh, the middle kingdom. 

Landscape on the way up from Maihar to the Rampur Plateau
One day, quite out of the blue, I got a call from an old friend. She said: “Come see me, come to Madhya Pradesh and spend a few days at my art centre in Maihar”.  I asked her why to which she replied, “I don’t know, just come, I just felt like inviting you."

It isn’t as if we hadn’t been in touch since college, where we studied textile design together at the polytechnic, in mid-late 1970’s. Ambica, now owned and ran a successful art gallery in Kolkata. Art being the common denominator, we did have occasion to meet. But, it was Facebook that really kept the thread of connectivity alive and the way in which Ambica prefaced her invitation was the clinching factor. She has a way with people and is very affectionate; and that did the trick.

It was mid-December when she called. I had planned a Christmas open house on 22nd December, inviting neighbours and friends to share a Christmas cake I had baked - my first attempt. So, on 24th December, I flew to Khajuraho and met up with Ambica and her family and a whole new world opened up to me. The entire journey from Delhi to Maihar and back was enriching – to say the least!

My flight to Khajuraho was on time; well, just half an hour late, but

given that it was ‘fog season’, this was something to cheer. The flight was chock-a-block full.  I had a window seat and thought I would write in my journal but it really was too distracting with my elbow nudging my neighbour on the right and hitting against the plane wall on the left. So I just stared out the window instead, taking photographs of the snow-clad Himalayan peaks which I could see far-far away. The sky was a beautiful powder-blue and soft, white, woolly clouds, like a hand-knitted fabric, extended from below the belly of the plane - a blanket of cloud reaching far out into the distance. The snow capped peaks encircled an imaginary horizon [because I couldn’t see below the cloud cover] like a long arc bending from end to end of my vision. They were faint, yet quite clearly discernible to the naked eye, more so than the pictures my I-phone camera was able to take. I took lots of pictures simply trying to capture the essence of what I could see, but none matched up to the experience of spying those tiny peaks thousands of miles away.

It was this ethereal sight, filling me with a sense of serenity, which got me reminiscing about Ambica and our college days. One of the most vivid memories that I have are of  a bunch  of enthusiastic eighteen year olds working on an assignment of tie-dye – dying our samples, out in Ambica’s back-garden. She had invited us to her home in Sarvodaya Enclave and I think there must have been about ten of us chatting and eating and working. The lawn was a mess after we had finished. There was dye on the grass and strands of multicoloured thread everywhere. Her mother fed us, helped us untie the knots we couldn’t open and then cleaned up after us without any fuss. I haven’t forgotten this for the simple reason that I envied Ambica. My own mother, always a stickler for cleanliness, would throw a fit if I accidentally dropped poster colour [gouache] on the floor. Every time I meet Aunty I remind her of this and she smiles quietly, as if happy to revisit this memory.

Temple Complex in Khajuraho
Anyway, as the flight landed in Khajuraho, I switched on my phone when a sms informed me that madam had found a beauty parlour and was having a pedicure. Khajuraho is a small village in the Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh in Central India but even so I had no idea that getting a pedicure was an unusual feat. The SUV she had sent to pick me and my baggage, wound its ways from the airport through a complex passage of lanes and by-lanes, too narrow for the SUV, and suddenly Ambica emerged from a curtained doorway - not exactly relaxed but peeved because the beauty-parlour recommendation hadn’t quite met her expectations. There was no loo, no running water and the beautician retreated intermittently to her nearby home to get some hot water in buckets – some pedicure she had!

We then proceeded to the Taj Hotel for a late lunch and onto the temples which I was very keen to see but Ambica wasn’t. She’d been there too often and said it no longer held any charm for her. I refused to go alone and reminded her of the voluptuous drawings she had done at the national museum [another college assignment] and suggested that she should do some here while I wandered off with Satendra, the guide we had hired. Ambica always drew well with a firm, unhesitating line, and her figures were more than ample. The sculptures at the temples in Khajuraho should have been an inspiration but she now devotes all her attention to nurturing artists rather than indulging in art-making herself, so she reluctantly tagged along with me.

I know that Khajuraho is well documented and every tourist  visiting in India has been there and nothing I can say will shed new light on it. But for me, it was my own discovery of this ancient site that enchanted.
 Satendra [09893938015] was knowledgeable and his first few sentences gripped my attention......the erotic postures on the temples? Yes, I found them most interesting, but not titillating although Ambica may like to disagree since I focussed the camera lens with such intensity on as many as I could capture. Something she teased me about for most of the trip.  I was intrigued by the complex poses which seemed impossible and generated a sense of awe for the flexibility that could actually twist bodies into such contorted and complex postures.

 In her book on ‘Indian Erotica’, Dr. Alka Pande says that theses sculptures focus on earthly sensuality and divine love. There are sculpted apsaras painting their eyes with kohl and other alluring postures of shringar. I spied one removing a thorn from her foot in such a convoluted pose that anything less than a yoga master would have toppled off. This was no mundane event, it was being enacted as a ritual of enticement, or so it seemed.  Dr.Pande says that the maithuna couples [lovers] are symbolic of transcendental union and are not ‘coarsely representative of sexual intercourse’.  From the Tantric viewpoint, they depict the rise of sexual energy from the ordinary to the higher plane where the kundalini is awakened. Although they have been “misinterpreted as mysterious pagan rituals”, these figures, in her estimation, are not meant for “sexual enjoyment” but clearly suggest Tantric asanas for attaining self-realisation through union with a female/male partner.

What Satendra had to say was curious. He said that the Chandela kings, who claimed to be descendants of Chandra kulla [moon born], were rulers of this central part of India from 9th - 13th centuries A.D. At that time society was apparently, deeply inclined towards moksh [liberation from the cycle of birth and death] and celibacy was the chosen route to achieve this.  Therefore the Chandela kings introduced erotic sculptures on the temple facades so that when people came to pray, they would also be sexually aroused and thus hopefully procreate. Satendra said the rulers feared that without this, life would come to an end and with it their dynasty too.

Sounds plausible, but as I noted and the guide also pointed out, the postures were very yogic, as opposed to merely titillating. The complex poses seemed akin to a meditative act through the body, where intense concentration was needed. His was an unusual perspective which I tried to verify through the guide book, but they had the usual stuff about the name Khajuraho being derived from ‘Khajoor’ or date palms and that in early records it was actually called Khajurvatika – garden of date palms. The guide book cautioned that though erotic, these sculptures are not pornographic to excite “savage passion” but that they are sublime and sensual. I have to say I was confused.

Alka  Pande says that the “couples in erotic postures belong to a secular theme” where the “artisans gave full vent to their imagination....... beyond the kamashastra prescriptions.” One such example, on the north wall of the Vishwanath Temple, is based on the yogic posture of Shirshana or headstand, where two female attendants support the couple in a coital pose, on either side, while the male fondles their genitalia. Looking at this sculpture, standing in front of it, in Khajuraho, feeling the stone, taking in the carving with my senses, I was in filled with admiration. Was it at all possible? What kind of expertise in yoga would be needed to achieve this? Who were these people, what must it have been like to have lived in that era? It seemed to be so open-minded an uninhibited compared to the times that we live in. Were these couples married? What was their relationship? I had a million questions running through my mind. 
Friezes on Temple facade
 Engrossed with my camera and Satendra’s informative titbits, I could have spent a whole day there. Some of the friezes also depict animal passion in humans in the form of bestiality [Lakshman Temple] which, Satendra said, was indulged in while away on battle [with horses], adding that some friezes also cautioned about such excesses. He pointed out one such sculptural narrative which begins with a woman having intercourse with a dog, someone from the local village is a witness who goes and tells the whole village and then a King is seen dispensing justice/meting out punishment. It was defaced and one could barely discern the figures, but once pointed out, it was quite amazing to make the connection. Sculptures on the temple facades also depicted scenes from everyday life such as dancers and musicians, hunting scenes, animal fights, armies marching to battle, sculptors at work; teachers with their pupils and other activities. 
Defaced Frieze
Ambica rushed me through the large complex of temples and we didn’t even have a cup of tea. She insisted that there wasn’t time as the journey to Maihar would take us about three hours by road, travelling through the famed Chambals hills, renowned for the exploits of  Phoolan Devi, the Bandit Queen. She didn’t want to undertake this journey in the dark. But dark it did get. And having been terrified enough by her, it took all of my courage to insist on a loo stop, bang in the midst of the dreaded hills. It is one of the perils and quirks of travelling through the Indian countryside where there are no public conveniences and we are compelled to answer the call of nature; in natures own unkempt back yard. Phone-torch in hand, gingerly but desperately, I wandered off into the nearest ample shrub, crossing my fingers that no snake would slither by. The rest of our journey, we chatted like school chums with so much to share. Catching up like this was really fun. 
Art Ichol Art Residency under construction - Chambal Hills in the distance
Getting to Maihar in darkness meant that I was unable to see exactly what the location was or where this neo-colonial bungalow, which has a history of its own, was positioned. Unable to sleep because of all the excitement and a new place, I could hear a stream of constant traffic. Plus, it seemed that a railway line was very close by too and around 12.30 am, someone started playing the dhol and then I could also hear a chorus of bhajans. I was later told that the house was bang on NH 7, a railway-line ran alongside the back of the house and there was a mandir nearby too.

I can’t seem to leave behind the railway line and mandir noises. This cacophony of the chaotic Gurgaon urban-scape of Palam Vihar had followed me here too!

When we reached Maihar, from Khajuraho, I met Ambica’s husband Sanjeev, their older son Adit, and Charles Kim, a student intern from the US. It was cold but we sat outdoors, around a fire, drinking wine, exchanging stories and singing old Hindi film songs. But at night, while sleep escaped me, I was still in Khajuraho. I loved the temples. It was really awesome to see every inch of the external stone walls, covered lushly with carvings of such exquisite detailing and near mathematical precision. I have not really studied stone carving much, so was not aware of the kind of skill involved, but looking at those temples made me  think they were totally fabulous, and wonder, how did anyone create something like this? I also mused about the fact that I knew next to nothing about the Chandelas and the Bundelkhand region I was visiting, and anything studied in school was long forgotten.  I finally slept with the thought that life, when looked at through the lens of history was fascinating. As an Indian, all of this was part of my socio-cultural gene.  I wanted to know more, explore how much of this was still part of our ethos, how this may or may not have influenced the Indian woman of today, and why or how these ideas had been sanitised through time. But, unfortunately, I have done little in this regard since I returned, almost a year ago.
View of River Tamasa from Writers Retreat - under construction. Old bridge seen in distance.
I spent four days with Ambica and her family. She wanted me to see everything - Amariya, the writer’s retreat that she was building on the banks of the River Tamasa of Rishi Valimiki and Sita of Ramayan fame, which flows down from the Kaimur [Vindhya belt] mountain range through Rewa and Satna in Madhya Pradesh travelling to Allahabad. The new Ichol Art Centre that was under construction on the other side of Maihar - facing the Chambal hills which we could see in the far distance. 
View from Rampur Plateau
The Rampur Temple plateau which has a breathtaking view and then she also insisted I listen to the Maihar band - the only Indian classical band in the country, doing their riyaaz [daily practice] early one morning. 
So much to see and take in, I felt over-stimulated and barely able to cope, but her enthusiasm was infectious and I went along. We would come home for lunch each day, eating out, basking under the warmth of the winter sunlight. And there was this spacious, antique bed laid out on the lawn where I would sun myself each afternoon. Relaxing after the tours, I would inevitably be staring up at the yellow and white painted arches with colourful Bougainvillea cascading down. I thus pondered upon all that I had seen, heard and felt, trying to figure out how it all fitted in, whether it did or not or how.

Maihar Band
 I had taken this trip just as impulsively and intuitively as Ambica had invited me. A journey had begun and an endless narrative was unfolding. Whether or not there was a purpose only time would tell and maybe we would devise one. But for me, then, as now, the journey was the essence – a narrative of self discovery, through history, memory and more – inhabiting the middle kingdom.

Friday, 11 July 2014

I Walk The Path of Water and Skies [Guest Post by Seema Kohli]

I was introduced to the Shakti as Goddess, or better still, she introduced me to herself when I was very young. As a family we were believers of Advaita Vedic order (monistic order of one Supreme Consciousness, with no idol worship) with secular leanings - extremely progressive in our approach imbibing, the best of all faiths.  But, at the same time there was no idol worship. 

Somewhere in early 1970’s I visited Haridwar along with my parents and bought the idols of all the three gods Brahma (creator), Vishnu (purveyor) and Mahesh (destroyer) with the Goddesses Durga, Lakshmi and a small Deepam. I felt a strange affinity with these images. So much so, that on my own, I started a small ritual of lighting the lamp; on some days I also bathed these Gods and Goddesses.  I had even borrowed a small book of basic chants and aarti of the Goddess Durga.  Thus, I developed a relationship without any communication or understanding. I was very young, maybe 10 or 11 years old.

While growing up, the more I started to hear about her, I wanted to read about her. And the more I read about her, the mystery deepened and I wanted to understand her better. It was as if someone was holding my hand compulsively and I did not want to leave that. I just wanted to wander away with her to somewhere mysterious. There was no fear; I felt protected all along.

So here started my journey to decode this basic flow of energy, the energy that makes this whole world go around. Everything is moving and is synchronized even if we think it is not, everything rejuvenating, positively recycled; in spite of the apparent death or stoppage everything comes around anew, afresh. 

Chaunsath Yogini at Mitauli, nr Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh

I wanted to understand her (the goddess) more closely and started reading, exploring and experimenting by visiting various sites of this energy, connecting to its vortex. Is it not apparent everywhere? Is it not the main source of life, breath and continuation? So then why these special sites….. I was and am still intrigued. Did I want to be comforted by the domesticated feeling of going Home? A physical place maybe, which we created to perform rituals to feel her physical presence - Temples. I visited various Shakti peeth in Himachal, Punjab Uttar Pradesh, Uttar Kashi and Bengal, in order to understand this ethereal power which they say, makes this universe spin.

Beraghat, Jabalpur, Chattisgarh
I began visiting various Yogini sites - where no rituals were taking place and also some, where rituals were still being conducted. The concept of ritual is extremely important to me as this repetitive exercise or habit helps discipline the mind. It also helps us on the path to self realisation. But, to me, these various rituals should be understood and self-created according to our perception of energy. Along with this, a study of scriptures can be used as tools.

The first Yogini site I visited was in Beraghat, Jabalpur, in 2005. I knew I had to come back here again to understand my relationship, the overwhelming power of theses circular spaces, where by just going around the circumference my own vortex seemed to align with the energy forces prevalent there. These sites are extremely calming and balance your inner space. The sense of rhythm and movement along with the deep set faces of the Yoginis is intriguing. It is one of the largest Yogini sites which has 81 Yoginis instead of the usual 64. Though there is fencing around the idols we can still get a clear view of the Yoginis. What I understand about the Shiva Temple at Bheraghat is that it was installed to “remove the flow of the negative power” of the Yoginis. The inscriptions speak about a queen mother that patronized the construction of this ‘traditional temple’ after her sons recovered from an illness.   Probably, she believed that those female creatures had negative powers. Among the many stories I have heard, some legends depict the Yoginis as malevolent creatures that could take away children, transform men into animals, etc. Some other legends talk about the benevolent qualities of the Yoginis such as teaching their followers to realize the divine enshrined within the body. 
Behraghat, Jabalpur, Chattishgarh

In most of these sites the sculptures are defaced - as is the case in Beraghat. Maybe as humans we want to check out our power by defacing and demolishing these sites of faith and reverence. Mind you, this kind of showing of power is not there only in one community but as humans on the whole.

Though I had been working on the idea of feminine energies such as Hiranyagarbha, Saptamatrikas, Dusmahavidyas and Ashtanayikas for a while, a more full-fledged plunge into the visual representation of Yogini came only after I visited these spaces in 2012 and aligned my mind, body and soul to them. For me now, the Yoginis not only exist in a mere mystical, visual form but also in a physical form. 

 All these sites have a sense of peace and calm about them. They were all built in secluded places,  hidden from public gaze. It is believed practitioners used to go to these secluded sites to perform various rituals and conduct experiments on themselves - their bodies in order to achieve self-realization. In the process they acquired certain “siddhis” where they were depicted as a certain form of a bird, reptile animal, human or endogenous form having a human body.  A power to construct, reconstruct; destroy and reconstruct the material world around them.  They could perhaps walk on water or wonder off into the skies with or without their bodies!

Chausanth Yogini at Ranipur, Jharial, Odisha
The Chausath Yogini at Ranipur Jharial is on the top of a hill isolated from the village settlements nearby. The main Yogini temple shares remarkable topographical similarities with other Yogini sites like the ones at Mitauli and Bhedaghat in Madhya Pradesh. The rocky landscape, reminds me of intergalactic space and the presence of a water body nearby seems to present an ideal setting for female mendicants to meditate and practice austerities. The circular hypaethral form of the Yogini temples is said to allow the circulation of divine cosmic energy that inhabits these sites. This idea of the “circulation of divine energy” also exists in Sufism (with the circular dance of whirling dervishes) as well as in shamanic practices. 

Bhairava at Chausanth Yogini, Ranipur

Yogini, Ranipur, Odisha
I must mention an incident that took place here while we were attuning ourselves to the space. A Brahmin priest from the nearby temple came and touched the feet of Bhairava but left without acknowledging the presence of Yoginis. Some moments later, a family from the village came - mother, son and daughter-in-law, along with a new born. With the mother leading the way, they went around the Yoginis . And they did not acknowledge the Bhairava. I asked the mother  about it and she replied saying it was each one to their own  - “For me she does everything, Pandit ki Pandit jaane”. 

At the site, I also saw the ancient remains of a once existing “maze” – a series of concentric circles - a concept that is shared by numerous belief systems such as Sufism, Christianity and Buddhism. This “maze” allows entry of two people which is not just a physical encounter but also a spiritual union with the Higher Form. 

Chaunsath Yogini at Ranipur, Jharial, Odisha
This Tantric experimentation at these sites was not restricted only to the personal realisation of the eternal self, but also to gain spiritual power that would then enable these practitioners to help others on the path. Many Kings would install idols of these female goddess, especially Saptamatrikas, to attain fierce powers to win over enemies, which, however, is not a prescribed use of this divine energy. (Ellora Temples, Maharastra)

Today, there is a move to reinstate the mysterious science of the Yogini cult. In a pedagogical sense, Yoginis were a very important thought system and practiced forms of Tantric worship that centred on the perfection of the body to achieve perfection of the soul. Even in the fiercest form, we can see the serenity and rejoicing in their posture. The presence of Bhairava is indicative of a balance of the male and female energy within them.

Lingam at Mitauli nr Gwalior

Yoni, Naresar, Madhya Pradesh
The site of Naresar, near Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, is interesting for a unique yoni sculpture which houses 15 smaller yonis within itself; this fascinated me. The Archaeological Survey of India is trying to restore the ancient temple complex at Naresar to its former glory as a secluded spot of meditative worship. There are several carved temple blocks, which they are trying to put together but sadly without much thought. The identity of a certain God or Goddess is confused by reconstructing their temples, by installing different vahanas for different deities.

During one of these visits I went to Chaunsath Yogini at Mitauli, near Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, the original sixty-four Yoginis have now been replaced by sixty-four cement lingams without any pedestals or yonis from which the lingam traditionally arises. The yogini idols that were once placed within the temple niches have been stolen, damaged or transferred to the Gwalior Museum nearby. Under the given circumstances, filling the empty niches with cement lingams is not only a historical error and a false representation of the cultural practices of the past but also points to a deep neglect of the feminine form. It is clearly indicative of the state of woman in today’s time. In spite of the up- gradation of woman in social order through education, reservations and apparent political equality, replacing the lost idols with smaller replicas of Yogini sculptures, would have been a more thoughtful gesture. For me, this is a “rape of the sacred site.” (Stella DuPuis 'The Yogini Temples of India' Pilgrims Publishing, Varanasi, 2008, pg 67.) 

Chaunsath Yogini,Mitauli, nr Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh
Here too while walking through the village, I asked a little girl where the Yogini is?  She replied unabashedly “Neeche, rasoi main” (Downstairs, (at home) in the kitchen).  For me too, a Yogini symbolizes the nurturing aspect of woman, creating not only spiritual bliss but also material contentment.

Chaunsath Yogini at Mitauli, MP
Panchvarahi is located about 180km from Bhubneshwar. Varahi as Yogini, is one of the Saptmatrika’s and the consort and power of Varaha, which is one of the incarnations of Vishnu, the purveyor.  We drove from Bhubneshwar and then walked, took a boat then walked again and were lucky enough to hitch a ride till the site of the temple through remote villages, paddy fields and sea drenched barren lands. The site is absolutely magnificent with an old small temple on the virgin beaches of Bay of Bengal. The sea is extremely wild here with violent, roaring and high waves that snatch the earth beneath your feet, urging you to join the sea. According to hearsay about eight centuries ago there was a violent storm which plunged the entire kingdom under water, except this small piece of land where the present day community of Savana tribes stays. So, the king installed the idols of Varahis and requested the women of this tribe to conduct all the rituals of the temple. It was felt that since she is a female deity, women would take best care of her. Even till date, one of the twenty surviving families of this Savana tribe moves into the premises to conduct the rituals and look after their beloved Varahais, in rotation, every month. A woman priest conducts all the rituals and only she is allowed in sanctum sanctorum. It’s a rare site to see this female tradition upheld today, at the fringe of the male Brahamanical order.

What really excites me about these places is the parallel in these Tantric practices and other extinct faiths such as Sufism, Buddhism or Hinduism. At a time, maybe, when the concept of codified religion did not exist or was not as compartmentalized as today, personal identities and practices were much more fluid; where a constant borrowing and exchange of ideas took place. I feel that, today, when the urge to answer “Who am I’ or “Who are we?” and “Where do we come from?” is so strongly rooted in our religious identity, we tend to compartmentalize practices and beliefs into regimented and narrow frameworks which, according to me, is a practice much in vain.

My journey does not end there, it continues in the quest of trying to find the end of that cycle. Somewhere deep inside me I do know it does not exist but the journey continues without despair.

Seema Kohli is a painter. She lives and works in New Delhi.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Genmaicha and an Uninvited Guest

Opening the window to savour the spring morning air, I settled down to write. There was a pot of Japanese Genmaicha tea by my side to accompany this daily, early morning, routine.

I hadn't been feeling too good. Things had been crowding my mind and I needed to be more sensitive to what was churning within; it had been making me nauseous these past few days. So I opted out of my usual Darjeeling tea. The caffeine in it stimulates me. And the green Sensa leaves with the roasted rice, which makes the essential Genmaicha, would help me de-toxify. Sans the caffeine in that regular cup of chai, I could hope for a subtler state of mind to observe more closely what was going on inside my head. I had also decided to fast to aid the detox process.

Sencha has a flavour that's close to that of a salt-less broth of boiled veggies and is an acquired flavour.  I like it:  the toasted rice adds such a wonderful aroma to Genmaicha and also enhances the otherwise ascetic taste of green tea.

I first tasted this in Japan in the late 1980's and revisited the flavour on another visit in 1996. The hotel we stayed in Tokyo had a supply of powder that served as green tea. You could heat the water and make yourself some. And that is what I did each day.

My taste for Genmaicha and preference for it over the Sencha green tea, I acquired on a trip to Boston in 1998, where my younger sister used to live. She introduced me to it and I carried back a supply of circular tea-bags made especially for the American market. But they didn't last long.

A lot of people in Delhi drink green tea these days and you can buy it almost everywhere - flavoured with mangoes and apples and more. But this isn't the same green tea made with the Japanese Sencha leaves. Most of it is made with young Assam tea leaves or Darjeeling - of the Camellia variety. But Mittals in Sunder Nagar always has some of the authentic stuff. Not the powdered variety but the leaf. And Vikram Mittal is ever-obliging to get some if he doesn't have it in stock.

My mornings are precious for the serenity of being awake while most people are asleep. But this morning a bird flew into my bedroom. I was charmed.

It’s impossible to capture them on camera usually, so I sat very still. I took out my phone and, was busy photographing it, when I realised doing this could go on forever and captive or not, a bird is a bird whose wings will always flap. I didn't get very good images either. This was partly because fabulous as the i-phone camera is, it doesn't have my Nikon's 42x zoom [which was in another room and I didn’t want to miss the moment or scare the bird by opening the door etc], and partly because the bird was moving constantly!

Very quietly, I got up from my bed and ventured closer. I walked slowly and without my chappals, as soundlessly as I could, but it darted here and there and kept hitting itself against the glass. I reached out to open the window wide, but when it took a leap of wing, it was always on the side of the glass that wasn't open - the wrong side.
I think that this family of birds is quite silly. They are also a nuisance for those of us living in high-rises because they crap and mate in every nook and cranny and eat almost anything, including cement and my lovely green-plant leaves. I try and get around that by feeling them bajra  every morning, which is why they sit on the ledge outside my bedroom window each morning.  Sometimes they knock on the window to remind me that I am late in feeding them, but none has ventured further than that and neither do I encourage it.

This morning, this hapless pigeon popped into my room uninvited, however unwittingly. And I was as surprised as it was. Whether or not I liked these birds, the fact was that it seemed so lost and I could sense and see that it wanted help. It was, after all, in my domain, so instead of distastefully shooing it away; compassion got the better of me.
I tried to reassure the creature. I spoke softly.  I measured my tone of voice to calm its ruffled feathers. Saying as gently as I could, "Give me a chance to hold you." I didn't want to grab it and chuck it out. And even if I wanted to I couldn’t have.

The pigeon grey with those mesmerising and constantly changing hues of teal into purple and grey, which graced its neck, kept me glued. I still wanted a picture but the pigeon felt trapped, so my priority was to set it free.

It was scared. In that state of panic it fluttered and hit the glass, in a desperation I didn’t think it should have felt (after all, I was trying to reassure it and set it free). The vicious sound of its beak banging against the glass coupled with those fluttering wings was distressing.  I became aware of a sense of fear welling up inside of me.
How would I hold it, its claws are so pinkly creepy. What if it hurts me? When living creatures, including human beings, perceive themselves under threat or feel defenceless they tend lash out and that that is what I have seen them do. So I was afraid. I didn’t know quite what to expect! I quelled my sense of unease and bent lower, as softly and as gently as I could. I stilled my mind, made it resolute to catch the bird. But I was squeamish and wondered how they caught those terrified chickens in the slaughter house. The thought of that throbbing feathered thing, struggling in my palms, in total distrust of me [I must seem like a giant to this tiny creature], began to disturb me .  I started feeling the fear in a way that was unnerving.  How could I be so afraid of a frightened bird, of such minuscule dimensions? Noting this was not reassuring for me. My own negative self-talk was beginning its rancour.

But it was trapped in my house, trapping me in my own fear and I had to do something. I kept whispering, "Let me help you, please help me set you free. I’m not going to hurt you, I‘m a friend here. Just stay still for a moment, I'll just hold you and promise not to hurt you. I just want to set us both free."

But I couldn't bring myself to get a hold of the pigeon. I just couldn't grasp that fluttering body, so restive, so scared. I moved back after a while. And it leapt up into the air, hitting itself on the wrong side of the window, yet again. I thought I should try and slide the glass and open the side it seemed to prefer. I was, however, surprised that it didn't even seem to sense the open spring air wafting in from the other side.

I had to lean over. There was no way I could do it without the menacing movement of arching my large frame over that tiny and terrified soul. And sure enough, in its defence, it lunged at me, terrifying me further. All through this I was silently chiding myself for allowing its fear to rattle me. But it did.  And I wondered if it could not sense the breeze on the open side of the window, could it  sense my fear?  Or was it too caught up in its own anxiety of not being able to return to the skies again?

It had now reached a point, where I could not get back to what I needed to do with my life until I had dealt with the bird - set it free. My mornings are precious and writing at that time is sublime, effortless and insightful. Almost as if in the quietude of mind, rested by sleep and the silence of a world still not fully awake to itself, my souls speaks easier to me. I was getting upset with the pigeon - this hapless creature that had invaded my space.

The earlier charm of capturing it on camera, getting that closer look at its feathers et al, was giving way to irritation - just slight, but it was there. I kept reminding myself, the bird was a messenger. The universe had sent this feathered friend to help me, to show me the way. I tried to look back in mind, of thoughts it could be addressing, which wasn't easy to do when I was also trying to concentrate on the task of helping the flapping bird fly out. But the idea calmed me a little. And that sort of helped but, I still couldn't bring myself to hold those fluttering wings. I was chicken and not very proud of myself for it.

There had to be a way! There was no-one else around. Mahipal would not be here for a couple of hours at least. I had to put my mind to it and get it done. This was something I had to do for myself today. And then I found a piece of card - it was always there but just then its whiteness gleamed and caught my eye. About eighteen inches or so, not quite a square, it was light enough not to hurt the bird yet large enough to encourage it to leap, guiding with its form, to fly up in the right direction.
And in that instant, with the help of that white card, carefully holding it such that it didn't touch the bird but just nudged it in the right direction, I managed to do it.  

 The grey pigeon flew out of the window. With its peacock coloured neck and that clear dot of white on its pincers and those creepy looking pink claws, it found its way out into the sky. For a moment it was stunned. Or so it seemed, for it turned back for an instant and I imagined this was in disbelief, that it was finally free.  I mean could there ever be regret for an experience where it engaged with me only in fear?

 I was relieved. I could now reclaim what was left of the early morning calm. But my sense of relief was brief. Not only had the bird disrupted my precious routine, I now had to tackle that fear in me that had been excavated in engaging with it!

Yes, excavated - not embedded by the experience just narrated.  Unknown to me, fear existed. The bird had been a messenger from the universe - a catalyst for me to be able to see this –  for only then could I set myself free.

Now that the bird had returned to the skies, it was my turn.

Monday, 10 March 2014


Journeys of a mind, travelling
                                 beyond space and time,
journeys of trudging
                    through mush and grime.........

For me journeys are not just about travelling around the world, looking at marvels of nature or mankind, but journeys of the mind. We don’t really know the destination; experience is the journey. It is about perceptions and feelings and emotions and revelations. It is about people and places that enrich and arouse the spirit. Rising above the mush and grime of daily living to infuse it with the spirit’s passion to live another day, breathing in its grace, leaving behind the grudges of yesterday. It’s about looking at the world around you and engaging with it to find yourself through its multitudinous illusions.... at least trying to!

A recent train journey that was delayed by about five hours made me realise just how much I would have missed had the train arrived in Delhi, on time. We were supposed to reach Nizamuddin Railway Station around eleven a.m. which meant that all the places we were to have passed in the dead of night were the ones I was awake to look at: the delicately billowing sarson, miles and miles of yellowed fields waking up to their golden hue, reflecting the sun’s passion as it sharpened its rays and more. I spent most of this extended time either searching platforms for a much needed cup of tea or looking out of the train through the lens of my camera. Very much a visitor in my own country, curious about everything that the locals took for granted. In doing this I was no less of a curiosity to them, especially the chai wallahs busy racing up and down the platforms serving tea, while I chased them with my camera.

Aditya Dhawan’s collection of photographs on the metro, - Metro-tales as he calls them, remind me of just such a curiosity. In the first image – [he hasn’t named them], a rather solid steel bar divides the frame, virtually in half, vertically slicing a man’s body such that, ironically, it exaggerates his belly. He isn’t fat, but not lean either. The photographer’s focus is on this central figure dressed in a green T-shirt, printed with black letters in English, tucked inside blue jeans, secured with a black belt. He, our Mr. X is carrying a paper bag in his left hand and two more lie on the right side, as if left there so that he could hold onto the hand-stirrups above [which we do not see]. His eyes look blankly ahead – face deadpan, as if in another world, with hopefully, enough attention to ensure he gets off at the right stop. Maybe the bags on the floor of the carriage don’t belong to Mr. X but to the faux-leather-covered arm that arches across the top of the frame. A rather sinister element in this photograph because all you see is the arm.  One assumes there is a body attached to it and that it isn’t someone’s severed limb. Almost all the other travellers are in a kind of dark shadow, not because of insufficient lens exposure but because they are mostly wearing dark blue or black. This creates an aura of darkness which, however, is interrupted with the hint of a smile, gingerly peeping through heads and arms - a fellow traveller enjoying a joke perhaps? It’s barely perceptible and though it does lighten the mood, the frame is rather sombre and reminiscent of the socio-political atmosphere of the country at this point in time.

I have to confess that, I have not yet been on the Delhi Metro. But having travelled on the underground in various part of the world, I am no stranger to such journeys where everyone, including myself, was just waiting to get off at our designated stations and hardly noticing what was going on, not thinking twice about such everyday scenes. However, Aditya draws my attention to them not because he has captured something apparently significant but precisely because he has not. That is what makes it significant because, in expecting some great revelation, I look and, when I look, I see things that I would otherwise miss.

 And this is the thing that I love about art: when you look you find yourself in it through the ramblings of the mind. I focus on things I see, and let them speak to me. What did you see in that image? It is, after all, a question of perception. A lot of assumptions come into play and while I saw that happening as I looked, I decided to question them because, in reality, when we assume we actually miss what else could also be going on. The sombre mood, the arm that could be a severed limb, the dark aura because of the clothes and the photographer’s choice of lighting options [did he or didn’t he use a flash and why not?] builds up the mood for something more than the physical dimensions of the scene conjure up. It makes life interesting.

 In another image we have a child that is clearly upset. Its facial expression – the elongated cheeks, flared nostril, strained muscle on the right side of the neck, the wide open mouth and that look of longing, calling out to someone or for something that has gone out of his/her grasp, the sense of separation –conveys more than just a child’s petulant cry for a toy or comforter.

The child appears to be clad in a snug quilt-like outfit, partially unzipped. It’s placed, most likely, on someone’s lap, but without making that assumption based upon experience, going just by what I can see, it could be abandoned and maybe that is why it is in so much anguish? A hand, much larger hand, more than ten times the size of its tiny, exquisitely crafted fingers, touches as if in support. And yet the touch is tentative, there is no clasping of fingers nor does this hand hold onto the arm of the child. A thumb merely touches the sleeve. Would that be the hand of an indulgent mother, letting her child cry its heart out, uncaring of the discomfort of co-passengers? Or, is it an exhausted mother who cannot care at this point, nor really do much in the present situation? Or maybe it is the hand of an indifferent passenger, whose compassion is being awakened upon seeing the distraught, abandoned child. Yes, I am trying not to assume but question. It’s possible that an unseen hand holds the child securely and this is just an innocuous gesture and I am deliberately trying to read meaning into it.

But wait, there’s more. We have a view of this child from above. All other bodies are faceless. What we see are shoes, slipper-clad feet, a light-bluish duffle bag resting on the floor and two steel pillars rising upwards from this floor. One pair of feet is shod in white and grey Nike sneakers with the Nike logo signed off in gold.  This hint of glitter, which is not gold but a sharp shade of yellow vinyl, is complimented by a sweater in close proximity. It is knitted in an elaborate, geometrically-floral pattern, in black, white and golden ochre. Under the light in the train’s carriage, it sparkled as if embroidered with metallic thread.

Bags on the floor, back-packs, rucksacks and a woman clad in a blue-flowered, mill-printed shalwar kameez sits beside the child. An ample figure, her hands are clasped in her lap, maroon plastic bangles on a dark-skinned arm holding a black cloth bag. I catch a glimpse of a metro route map on the door of the carriage, partially obscured by passengers hovering close, possibly so they can run out as soon as the door opens at the next station. These are the additional props and figures in this scene.

What interest me above all, in this frame, are the dust drawings on the floor. These are not carefully considered drawings executed by skilled draughtsman, but drawn by shoes and slippers as feet swivel the dust on their way through the carriage. I suppose it could be called a performance by travelling companion-strangers, each adding or subtracting from the last foot-print. Their eyes rarely have a role to play in this drawing for they are mostly eyeing available seats, a place to fit their bodies or seeking proximity to the door when their stop is near. I mean, who really looks at the floor? But my attention is brought to this again and again because Aditya’s photographs appear to be not just images of motley of strangers inadvertently travelling together; they’re evocative of the very nature of life and its idiosyncrasies, most especially ways of seeing and the crafting of our perceptions. And besides, his obsession with feet and how they are shod draw my attention to the floor of the train’s carriage.

Stilled in time, in that moment, he captures not just an essence but many facets of life that lead from the physical to the metaphysical and back to the physical, quite simply because, he deliberately presents severed limbs, half bodies and two pairs of shoes that belong to three different bodies in a surreal presentation of identity or loss of it, in a crowded metro. The slice of life he presents is abstracted from the physical reality that he sees which makes these Metro-tales evocative of states of the mind - its imaginable and unimaginable capacities.

But what intrigues me is that when I try and cut out what I know and just look based on what is in front of me, it really is such an impossible task because then I cannot really define anything. I cannot really tell you what it is that I see. And yet in trying to do this as an exercise, a world of possibilities is uncovered. Krishnamurti says that to know what ‘is’ requires awareness, a very alert, swift mind..... to observe and study but not judge, to be alert yet passive.

The next image is priceless from this point of view and I am really grappling for words. The photographer shows us nothing but lower limbs of the human body and a lot of toes. In fact at one point the big toe of two feet that belong to different bodies, come so close that I can imagine them having a conversation – toe speak!

In the foreground of this: painted toe-nails, black vinyl slippers decorated with white floral embellishment and toe rings [bichoos] on two adjoining toes emerging from under bright yellow voluminous folds of what has to be a shalwar, defines the gender as female, a married woman. This lower extremity is poised in the air as if the legs have been crossed, knee over knee in a convent-style advocated lady-like fashion, a must for the genteel. The dark skin, well worn slippers, peeling nail polish implies that this woman is not used to indulgent pedicures of the genteel but the convention of crossing legs seems to have percolated through social strata and is standard social behaviour today.

In a photographically engineered footsie scenario, another foot stands at an interesting angle to this slippered matron’s foot. An expansive curve forms between the legs. This other limb, grasps between its big toe and adjoining toes, a bright cobalt blue, albeit dusty, Hawai [rubber] chappal and the leg is clad in grey denim which has visible creases of wear. I assume by the stance of the leg and the shape of toes that the wearer is male. The floor in the foreground is also grey and so is the side of the blue chappal. As the eye moves up the leg, the contrast diminishes and the leg almost merges with the grey colour of the floor which has now receded into the background. In between these two legs of opposite sexes, placed together on this journey, that form a veeish curve, there lies something that looks like a black bag. It could be dark grey but actually looks like a lump of something solid and weighty. It is identified as a bag through its metallic accessories of zip and a ring that probably holds the strap. Other details are fuzzy, at least on the computer they appear so.

What can such an image and the others before it  tell us? Aside from the esoteric idea of looking at the world around us with a sense of wonder but without judgement, at another level what are these Metro-tales really narrating? It’s actually hard to describe the images in words because Aditya has chosen very obscure ways of depicting signs of social change and behaviour patterns where so much westernisation has percolated through the various strata of society, noted through dress-codes and more.

An almost obese Buddhist monk, eyes closed, one hand placed on each knee, is wearing sleeveless saffron and maroon robes. The white head phones inside his ears could belong to an i-pod or i-phone, but is he listening to music or meditating on this crowded train? Another man sleeps, and there are tired-looking travellers who choose not to take a nap, someone fiddling with his cell phone, someone talking on one. And, a lone man, in what seems like an empty compartment, who looks as if he has lost his way in life.  The prize shot is one taken between colourful bandwallahs, en route to a wedding or on their way back, one of them asleep and another anxiously posing. Is that a selfie? 


Tell-tales of everyday life depicting the angst of a chaotic society undergoing change both social and economic, peppered with photographic humour of quirky shots featuring of only shoes and various patterns, in stripes and checks on shirts and trousers of male attire, on the metro. Not to forget blue-jean clad legs in rubber slippers, feet propped up on the steel pillar in front of the seat they occupied, bringing forth the question: would one not see this lack of civic sense, on public transport, anywhere else in the world?

It’s a subtle commentary, but that is what is so special about these images. They reveal, in a way, that it is your perception, drawn from your experience and understanding of the world that determines what you see. The photographer takes you on a journey of self-exploration, through the curiosity of your own questioning mind, beyond the obvious, to form an insightful picture of that moment frozen in time. The images capture within their ambit a slice of life where, paraphrasing William Blake, we can see a whole world in the unusual perspective of Aditya Dhawan’s lens.