And Again

Sometimes the words dry up. Sometimes, ideas do, which is a darker prospect.

 

It isn’t as if the creative part of my brain has shrivelled away. No, I believe that it’s just taking some time off. Or, giving me a break, allowing me to focus elsewhere. Or, it’s allowing me to channel my creativity differently.

 

In due course, which is a comfortably vague length of time, the thoughts, words and the urge to record them start to itch again, and I reclaim my space as a writer. So, is the intervening unproductive period a manifestation of the infamous Writer’s Block? Not sure that it always is. Living life, the busy-ness of doing, the devouring of food for thought and the clamour of introspection, any or all of these might put words on hold for a while only to release them in a richer torrent at a more propitious time. Or I flatter myself.

 

But the Block does notoriously exist. In one such barren phase some years ago I had penned a few words about it, which I share with you again in this blog. The dry spells recur, but fortunately the wordless tilling and toiling yield rewarding harvests later. And it all happens in repeated cycles. Again and again. And again….

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AGAIN

 

I wish I could resume writing. Just pick up my pen and pour the entire melange of thoughts, sensations, memories and reflections onto waiting reams of paper. And that the streams that issue forth from my mind form beautiful shapes of their own, sorting themselves out obligingly, creating art in black and white, reason and arrangement in apparent confusion, a tidy ease in a busy melee. I wish I could portion out the bundles of joy, sorrow, anger, despair, contentment, hope, grief, all the emotions in their myriads of hues, interwoven, intertwined, flowing from and merging back into each other, seemingly seamless, yet distinct.

 

But before that, I wish I could know what I know. Be able to know each thought, hold it in my palms, feel it, look at it, hear what it wants to say, understand its intent. I wish I could separate all the strands that are swirling around, pick one before the others. Which one? They are all mine, my progeny. Born of me, yet each day, each moment moulding a new me. A new perspective. A different idea. A fresh twist to an earlier epiphany. Fresh colours to an old memory. And I hear myself, “Aah! That’s what it is about!” The excitement of small things.

 

But so much is lost in translation, in communication. Putting into definite words what are at best nebulous ideas. And my mind mocks: “Was that really it? How it really was?” And then a little more is lost on its way to its recipient, the reader. “Has she really understood what it was all about? Have I been able to tell her as it is?”

 

Yet people write, effortlessly at times. And I am envious. I search for my muse but she eludes me. She is elsewhere. She has forsaken me. I beseech her to return. I promise obeisance. All in vain. I fret. I despair. My old foe, self-doubt, returns. Maybe, I am not good enough. Maybe, I never was. Maybe, I never will be.

 

But then I find I’ve picked up my pen again. My heart beats. The rhythm divine. Life as I know it has begun again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Calls from Beyond

It had been a quiet, peaceful, uneventful, everyday sort of day. I had been winding up the routine chores around the house, clearing the last pile of laundry in particular, as I remember. The phone rang and I reached out to answer it in an immediate instinctive reflex, a half folded shirt in my hands. My father’s voice came through, “Hello! Rohini?” and I answered as was my wont, “Hello, Dada! Tell me?” Only, it wasn’t him, but an old family friend who had been trying to reach my husband. The spell was broken and I talked to the friend. Coherently, I believe.

 

My father had passed away years ago but at that moment it had been his unmistakable voice in my ear. Gruff, strong, assertive, distinctive. Not that friend’s. I tried to shake off the oddness of the incident as an auditory illusion and returned to the ordinariness around me. But something within me had been jerked alive. A tingling, unsettling sense of the extraordinary. And as I worked through the rest of my day a question flitted in and out of my head: Why would that friend’s voice which I was familiar with suddenly come masked as my father’s?

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That evening while sitting down to my customary riyaz, I embraced nostalgia like a warm, comforting shawl. Bandishes that my father had loved listening to surged through in my consciousness and I wallowed in them as one would in memories that are both vividly and vibrantly alive yet steeped in swirling sentiment. Dada had been a staunch Bhimsen Joshi fan, and the maestro’s Sakhi, Shyam nahi aaye in Chhaya Malhar was much loved. He would point out to my mother excitedly, “Do you see how he calls out to sakhi? A different approach every time!” and they would both listen to that old LP, over and over again, completely enraptured. I too tried to emulate Bhimseji’s sakhi but, of course, there is none like him and his sakhi was also equally unique. But that evening I came as close to him as was possible for me, remembering and reproducing the fine variations he introduced every time he sang the word, the lilting love, the sense of urgency, the insistence, or then the resigned acceptance of Shyam’s disappointing non-appearance. Hope and loss playing hide and seek, Shyam’s sakhi and Dada’s daughter swivelling from the one to the other, back and forth on the tides of unrestrained emotion. That night after dinner I ate a small bowl of mango ice cream, again a firm favourite with Dada. It felt appropriate, feeding myself, feeding that dearly beloved parent of mine who had reminded me once again that he had never really left.

 

Well, both my parents have passed on. I miss them, of course. That is the inescapable quotient of attachment and bereavement, being reminded of what once was when one’s dearly beloved were still by one’s side. In fact, I miss the air that they breathed with me, the sunshine that would bathe their skin and mine, the mildly fragrant breeze that fanned the summer evenings in our garden, the song of the koyal that we heard together. The sun rises and sets as always, the seasons follow each other as before, gardens bloom and birds sing, and I appreciate it all every day, yet there is that fine edge to all my experiences and emotions today, an awareness of the difference in the seeming sameness. The undeniable presence of loss.

 

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Both my parents, Ai and Dada, lived full lives, loved each other, their children and life itself to the fullest. In retrospect, I know and accept that their passing was inevitable, perhaps timely too. But I remain their child, a greedy one at that, still hankering for that one more moment of togetherness, wanting to bury my head in Ai’s lap, inhale the caressing love that she exuded with every breath, hold Dada’s hand and step out into the lane outside our old house where I grew up, step out into the world as it were knowing that he would always have my back. Hear them call my name. Hear their response when I called theirs’. Hear them talk, laugh, hear the sound of their footsteps, the rustle of the newspapers they read, the sound of their TV, their rhythmic breathing when catching an afternoon nap. Smell his eau de cologne, her fragrant hair oil. See the faint depression on the sofa chairs they vacated. Pick up the phone to call them, talk to them. Drive over to their place and see her standing on her balcony, waiting in welcome. Not to be. Not anymore.

 

But is it all really final? There are instances when I feel that all I need to do is close my eyes and call out to them and I know that they will be there. Friends tell me that spirits of people live on, that death is certainly not the end. There are philosophies I have explored that are based on the continuing existence of the soul, of cycles of birth, death and rebirth, where the body is the garment that the soul wears during a particular life period, that garments change over the cycles of birth and rebirth, but the true spiritual essence, the soul, lives on. Until it is absorbed into the infinite, supreme, divine power that is God. That nothing is final, that death is just a separating façade, that we need to look beyond it. That all is a continual ceaseless flow, that the sentient and insentient may metamorphose and evolve, but never disappear. That just as matter and all that is material is constant in its sum, the spirit is equally indestructible.

 

There are times when I am sorely tempted to imagine that the souls of those I have loved and whose earthly presence has ended, linger on around me, like a nurturing loving wrap or a protective guiding ambient light. But I stop short of belief. For I do not know. I remain a hopeless sceptic. But, and this is just as important, I do not disbelieve either. For while I accept that souls, rebirths, god, salvation and so on are concepts born of the human intellect driven by a striving to pierce through the limiting walls of our pitiably finite knowledge, to make sense of this world and our life in it, I do not know for a fact that they are fallacious. My Ai and Dada may still be there, floating somewhere in this infinite universe, hopefully blissfully. Or, they may not. The dear young nephew I lost a few years ago, and my dear dear sister, my dearest confidante, friend, philosopher and guide, who followed some months later, may still be floating too, perhaps still invested in those that they tragically left behind. Maybe. Maybe not. The fact of the matter is that I do not know. And I am mostly okay with that.

 

For the essence of who and what they were still lives on in me. I carry them with me in everything I think, feel, do. As time passes and the jagged edges of memories get rounded and smoothed, comfortable and mellow in warm sepia, those that live on therein grow more loving, more forgiving, more endearing. And I grow increasingly loyal to them, fiercely possessive of every word they spoke, stoutly defending or even espousing every value, moral or ideal they lived by, tenaciously guarding every single thing they left behind for me, be they letters, books, photos, sarees or memories.

 

There have been days when I have been preparing something in the kitchen, a recipe that Ai had taught me, and I call out to her. Aloud. Ai, dearest, come and taste this, tell me if this exactly how it is supposed to be. No, she doesn’t answer, but that has never really mattered. For I still hear the echoes of all her previous approvals and affirmations, her genuine heartfelt appreciation of every single thing I ever did, whether it was a cake I had baked or a plateful of pakoras I had fried, a Raga that I had been singing or a story I had just written. There are days when I look at my reflection in the mirror and I see my mother’s eyes smiling at me. I wave out to her quietly, happily. And we both smile. That umbilical cord that once tied me to her still holds on.

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I am still awash with the impact of an incident that occurred soon after her passing. Pune had been reeling under exceptionally heavy though late monsoon showers, I had been driving to my French class, the wipers swinging furiously to and fro, the radio playing old Hindi songs, and my eyes streaming unstoppable tears of overwhelming grief. In the secluded privacy of my car I hollered out to her. Ai, how could you leave so suddenly? How could you not even wish me a goodbye? This is so unfair! Where are you, Ai? Show me where you are. Now! The radio crackled and a rather inane song that she had been inexplicably fond of started playing, dheere dheere bol koi sun na le. Speak softly, else … My heart flooded with gratitude.

 

Memories, illusions, moments of willing delusions, there is nothing tangible or measureable about them, is there? It’s all in the mind, as they say. An intense yearning to reach out to those who have left, a bullish resistance to accepting that they are no more, a bewildering vulnerability in their absence, a refusal to accept that death is unshakeable or a wild hope that there may be ways in which we could outsmart it and continue to communicate with those it has taken away. Any or all of that could be responsible for the games that our minds may play with us.

 

But just because it’s all in the mind, is it less real? I agree that my random moments of connection with my deceased parents could well be mere illusions, but does that negate their validity for me? When Darcy insults Elizabeth in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I fondly and perhaps foolishly believe that the tears that gather in my eyes are actually my sister Pratima’s, the ones that she had shed for the wounded pride of her loved and admired Austen heroine. That may be completely irrational. But is the heartache that I feel irrational too? Is it unreal? That erupting anger against the arrogant young man, is it exclusively mine or is it laced with what was once hers? Every girl and woman who has read and watched this classic wants Elizabeth vindicated, I more so because Pratima wanted it too. And Pratima is not sitting here with me feeling angry or wretched or sad or relieved or happy or satisfied. No, she trusts me to feel all of that by myself and on her behalf too. That may be my self-deluding assumption, but is my enduring love and longing for her to reclaim her earthly space a delusion? No.

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Parting and grief teach one as much about togetherness as togetherness itself. More, I suspect. Loving intensely makes losing that much harder to bear. But we survive, don’t we? Beautifully and gloriously, I think. For there is then wrought in us a refinement of our very humanity. Our capacity for empathy and compassion grows. Our appreciation of all that life has to offer is keener, heightened, for we know that life itself is ephemeral, our experience of loss and sorrow has handed us that wisdom. We value and cherish all those who stay on with us, holding our hand, leading us from crushing grief to a lightness of being and then on to an embracing of our everyday joys with as much lust as before. To be ready to love and lose again. And again.

 

And every happy or bizarre experience that reconnects me to those of my family and friends that I loved and continue to love dearly, those whose love for me survives in the memory of every cell of my being even after their physical presence has faded away, is like a precious gift. My lurking cynicism warns me that I am probably gifting these experiences to myself. Maybe. But I see no reason to refuse those gifts. If there were to be another time when my father was to miraculously speak to me on the phone, I would not turn away from him or remind him that he’s dead, just a sentimental memory I am clinging to, a vestige of my attachment taking refuge in my head, and that he has no earthly business to call me from the beyond. If there is a beyond.

 

The beyond may not exist. But are we sure that the here and now is not an illusion too? All is Maya as our sages insisted through the ages. Well, give me the Maya, I say. Any day. Every day. It is my inalienable birth-right as a human, the Maya of fulfilling love and of equally fulfilling illusions. Then death shall not do us apart.

 

My Sisterhood of the Arts

There was a time when I would appreciate the elegant beauty of a mathematical equation, especially its pretty economy when it would succinctly and successfully encapsulate a wordy essay in Economics. Of course, one needs to be equipped to be able to read/write that equation, explain its variables and defend the nature and direction of causation. But that thing of beauty would give me so much joy that it made the exploration of the caveats to it a pleasurable exercise too. 

 

Of course, my thing of beauty may be a mere ugly thorn to you, and vice versa. For aesthetics are essentially subjective. And I do not contest that at all. My point is that beauty could be anywhere and everywhere, not just in the visual but in every possible form and sense of the human experience. A scientist could find a perfectly designed experiment with its unique incontrovertible result her thing of beauty and joy. There could be an artistic elegance in the arrangement of a sequence of steps, be it in a recipe for a culinary dish or in a proof to a theorem or in a movement in a dance. Art pervades every aspect of our life irrespective of whether we are cognisant of it or not, and along with it come dimensions of aesthetics whether we perceive them or not.  

 

Today, as an artist and as an acolyte of musical notes and the written text, I see and am stirred by beauty every day. But I search beyond it. Musicians, writers, painters, actors, dancers et al can, when they are true to their calling, best be described as seekers. The term ‘seeking one’s truth’ has become overused and tired and cheap in today’s world, but it still epitomises an artist’s voyage, searching not only for the truth in the world as she sees it but also the nebulous truth that rests within her own being. Aesthetically marrying the two and then celebrating that marriage in the language she knows best. Through a musical composition or a building up of a Raga through a khayal or even a short musical phrase. Through the etching of a scene on the walls of a cave or through the strokes of a brush on a canvas or on the ceilings of chapels. An epic or an ode or an epistlolary offering. A ballet of power and grace or a single stoical stance capped with a precise mudra. An alignment of the entire body to depict the personage enacted on stage or in front of a camera, or a fleeting emotive nuance in the performer’s visage. Words, notes, colours, forms, textures, and so on represent the medium of expression, the subject of expression is always that essence of discovered truth. That thing of sublime beauty.

 

When I sing, I could be so immersed in the spell cast by the notes of the Raga that I lose myself completely, my mood merging into that of the Raga. All I see are those polished notes lighting my path helping me find my way through the melodic maze of the Raga. Irrespective of whether one sings to one’s potential or rises successfully to the challenge of the Raga, every presentation, performance or session of riyaz is a tryst with oneself, entirely by oneself. Secluded from the world around, wrapped up in a cocoon spun through melodic strands. There are times during riyaz when I am so in sync with the emotional content of the notes that I feel I could almost dispense with words. They appear to be superfluous or at best crutches that I lean on when too lazy to walk on my own. That the current of emotion seeking expression powers through, no, blazes through on its own sans the sub-titles of lyrics. 

 

To me, notes are complete in themselves, each one of them with a distinct personality of its own. Each appearing and behaving differently in different Ragas, revealing some facets of its personality here, hiding others. Just like us humans, opening up or bottling shut according to who we are with and where. Camaraderie with friends, formality with our boss, intimacy with our families, reserve with strangers and for those of us who believe, a laying bare of our very souls to the god we worship. So also with notes: sometimes a lover, sometimes a friend, a lord, a servant, a mother, her child, deity, devotee, each note dons the robes to suit the Raga it finds itself in. Each note then interacts with the others in the neighbourhood of its Raga and that builds up the emotional ambience that is that Raga. The words of the khayal or the bandish may annotate that swirl of emotion to the uninitiated, but they do not define it per se. In fact, there are compositions wherein I have found the words ill-suited to the temperament of the Raga, sometimes describing a visual that has no relation whatsoever with the emotional current of the notes. In which case, I merely go ahead and compose another, one that appeals to me and conforms to the mood that is being explored. This mirroring of melody in lyrics stems from a sisterhood of the arts of music and poetry. Similar to the fraternity of Mathematics and Economics that once enabled me to write that equation then. 
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(Image Source: Pinterest)

To illustrate: if I am singing Bhairav, which is an early morning Raga, I am seized by the sense of dawn breaking. I see myself eyes closed, the world around shrouded in darkness, and I will myself into a meditation of that combination of notes. And then as my Bhairav builds up I sense the streaks of amber that begin to light up the horizon, the sun rising from its slumber and gradually awakening the sleeping world. It is still a world of quiet, of serenity, of an enriching yet calm absorption of that pure and distilled morning air. There is that essence of purity in Bhairav, almost ascetic in nature, that to me cannot and should not be vitiated by any other element. My khayal cannot be about a frolicking Krishna in the pretty surrounds of Brindaban. It could be a call to Krishna to awaken, it could for that matter be drenched in Yashoda’s motherly love, but it cannot be an image of his Rasalila. Of course, your Bhairav will be different from mine, but the underlying well of emotion is the same, a well that is defined by the character of that peculiar combination of notes, a well from which we can drink only when we surrender to it completely, drowning in it, allowing its depth to swallow our individual egos. So even if the words you sing are a lavani about Krishna romancing his gopikas, the detached purity in the Bhairav notes reasserts itself, tempering the erotica, and that is what I hear. My Bhairav is always an homage to the rising sun irrespective of the words you dress it with.

 

The mirroring works both ways. There are times when I have woken up in the dead of the night and heard a musical phrase or aalap playing repetitively in my head. The soft cajoling strains of a Tilak Kamod. Fortuitous. For that aalap translates exactly into the words of the mother in my story, gently, tenderly coaxing her child to close her eyes, to sleep, for night is gathering and there are beautiful dreams waiting to be dreamed. And I can’t wait to hit the computer and pour it all out in faithful text. 

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(Image Source: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dgsb/hd_dgsb.htm)

 

Moving away from specifics, collaboration extends to all the arts. For it is the creation of a beautiful and enriching experience that matters, irrespective of whether it entails the invoking of one medium or more.  Dancers portraying the theme of a verse through their abhinaya. A sequence in celluloid relying on a piece of music to build up viewers’ expectation.  A singer or a dancer in a trance inspiring a painter to reach for his brushes and palette. A sculptor freezing a dancer’s pose in stone. Each knocking on the doors of the other and borrowing that cup of sugar. Knowing that that cup will be freely given.  

 

For underlying it all is the artist’s ceaseless voyage. Of discovery of self, of the other, and the contexts in which these find themselves, merging, separating, merging. My vision of myself and of the world around me is mine and mine alone, it may or may not coincide with yours. My medium through which I express myself is mine too, it may not be yours. Even if it were, my expression is mine, not yours. Yet, I see and respect the path you have travelled. I see and respect the hunger and energy in you that drives you to explore further along that path. I see and respect that joy of discovery, that brief resting in it and the restlessness that spurs you on again. I feel your excitement, your pain, your heartache, your angst, your loss, your gain, your frustration, your validation. Empathy. For we are bonded in a sisterhood of our arts. Creating under the aegis of and in the service of our muse.