Tag Archives: art

The Venus Flytrap: Other Types of Joy

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Several months ago, I finally put my innate maternal instinct to good use, and began volunteering with children. Roped in by another artist with a community-minded bent, I started spending a little time every week with children between the ages of three and five in a slum in Chennai, mostly telling stories and introducing the vocabulary of emotional nuance to them. At the moment, they’re getting ready to perform a short play I wrote for them.

I’m not going to lie about my motives. Deeply disillusioned by events in my career, I needed something to renew my faith in human goodness. I did not, at the time, have the capacity to work with preemie babies, the orphaned, the ill or the disabled, but I knew I wanted to work with children, and the opportunity to teach was perfect. Their backgrounds are inconsequential to me: to treat them as disadvantaged when their spirits shine and their bodies are able is to condescend. A friend of mine told me shortly after I first began this work that it would be good for me to see other types of suffering. I thought about how gleefully I am grabbed and kissed hello and goodbye by those little ones, and I knew that what this work does for me is the opposite: it allows me to see other types of joy.

Soon, I was also conducting sessions for older students at a lower income group matriculation school, teaching them spoken English and, again, emotional awareness. Teaching was rewarding in multiple ways, my love for children aside. I felt I’d found a dimension to my life that was independent of my artistic work, which otherwise defined my identity. This has been my struggle for over a year now: finding stability that will ground the volatility of my nature. As I enter my mid-twenties, the need for a steady foundation has become my primary endeavour.

One afternoon last month, in order to observe and learn, I accompanied another trainer to her session with primary school students. During a particularly noisy few minutes, she told the kids to take a free-drawing break. At the end of the class, a little girl brought her drawing to me. “It’s my gift to you,” she said. Two boys tore their pages out and did the same. I protested, asking why they didn’t want to take their artwork home to show their parents – they were truly beautiful pieces. “But I have so many drawings at home!” said one. “This is for you”. None of them had even met me before.

I did not expect that what I needed for my jadedness, my disconnect from my own creativity, would come from this work. Yet there it was – the most profound insight, so simply evident. Art for its own sake: not for legacy, not for honours, not to make a statement or to buy a more comfortable rung on the ladder. Art for the sake of love.

At the end of what feels like a hopelessly difficult year, it is the kindness of those toward whom I had the conceit to think that my kindness could make a difference to that restores my faith. I had never imagined I could become a teacher. I am humbled, even more so, by what I have been taught.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: The Immortal Fallout

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When Eric Maschwitz wrote “These Foolish Things” in 1935, he did so after parting with the actress Anna May Wong – she whose ghost it is that clings in the song’s most affecting lyric. In the dozens of times it has been covered by various artists since, and the millions of lingering memories it’s been on the soundtrack to, the phantoms it invokes have surely multiplied. Still, each time I listen to it (my preference is for Nat King Cole’s crisp cadence), I also remember Maschwitz and Wong, though mostly Maschwitz, possessed by a yearning so consuming it had to be written down. Oh how the ghost of you clings.

Love and heartbreak are the Siamese twin muses for much artistic work, inextricably linked, but even at their most shattering, the works are only byproducts to the fact. The immortal fallout, if you will. If the power of their own work could save them, artists might not have, or obey, such self-destructive impulses (ah, but would they create what they do if they didn’t follow those impulses? A question for another time).

Something about the stories behind songs beguiles me. Pop music doesn’t do anything for me because its lyrics are impersonal, written for mass consumption and therefore with the lowest common denominator in mind. I like music steeped in narcissistic soul-searching and that actually completely universal belief that one’s pain is of a magnitude previously unknown to humankind (I also, if it isn’t obvious, like pain). When the rare pop song does attract my attention, I look up its writer. It was little surprise, for instance, to discover that the aching “Beautiful Disaster”, sung by American Idol Kelly Clarkson, was penned by the singer-songwriter Rebekah, who was briefly notable in the mid-90s.

It has to ring true. When Lhasa de Sela belts out he venido al desierto pa’reirme de tu amor – that she’s gone to the desert to laugh at your love – I believe her. It’s important to me that she can be believed. Experience counts. You can fatten up your work to sound like you know what you’re talking about, but experience is the spine.

Reading Leonard Cohen’s 1966 novel, Beautiful Losers, I kept thinking about that most haunting of his songs, “Famous Blue Raincoat”. Like the song’s sleepless letter-writer, its protagonist is tortured by a triangle involving himself, his woman, and a man beloved enough to call brother. The book draped a new layer over my history with the song, and this was both illuminating and unsettling, because it fragmented and realigned some understanding I must have had in my head of what it was about. It changed its pathos, neither for better nor worse. I myself read Cohen because it is his songs that punctuate the landscape of my life; Leonard Cohen is my downfall, or at least, I hold him personally responsible for several of mine.

It’s these downfalls, of course, that inspire my own work. And like the vast majority of artists I fill my life with, the confessional is my instrument. Still, my writing is incidental, not fundamental. Life is more important than its recording. But caught in the act of creating, neither what happens to me nor to the work afterwards are of any consequence. Though sometimes, I’ll grant you this, there are.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The City As Canvas

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I have a long essay on the aesthetics of the city of Chennai in the current issue of Caravan magazine. Caravan is a journal of politics and culture and is available nationwide at good bookshops, and can also be read digitally here.

Some Paintings, a Q+A, an Elephant

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My childhood friend and incredibly gifted artist Michael Mata did these amazing digital paintings of me for my birthday.

And Abhimanyu Kumar Singh, who is my favourite interviewer and the kind of reader a writer lives for, did this lighthearted Q+A over lunch last week. We also played Cadaver Exquisito, which he’s reprinted in his blog as well. That question about the death-duel is the best I have ever been asked in an interview.

And here’s a genius elephant, which has nothing to do with me except it’s possibly more intelligent than you and I both.

The Venus Flytrap: Healing, Subtle As A Scar

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Without going into details, I was attacked last week and left with gashes on my chest which required medical attention and an injection. They were inflicted on me at the beginning of a nightmarish evening, and I couldn’t bring myself to look at the damage for myself until the next day. What happened then surprised even me.

Streaked across my decolletage, above my heart, were three bright, stinging maroon gashes. The deepest and longest rose from near my armpit like a wave unfurling in a torrent of movement. The one beside it looped in a small knot somewhere at the start of its trajectory. The last was shortest and extended almost directly under my suprasternal notch, that evocative hollow at the base of the throat. They were unequivocally, unexpectedly, beautiful.

Resting beside them on a thin silver chain was the rose quartz I had purchased just hours before the attack. I’d bought it to heal my heart chakra, and the literal effect – the surgery, if you will – laid bare across my flesh was not lost on me. Healing is rarely subtle work. I trust that which hurts.

Between the scarlet of the scarring and the calm pink of the quartz, dramatized against the brown of my skin, the only logical thing for me to do was to reach for my camera.

In the photographs that emerged, I look serene where my face can be seen. Where it cannot be seen I am all clavicle and throat, whisper of cleavage, shadow and light. The gashes tether every picture.

I know all about the documentation of scars. I’ve always found catharsis in creativity, in taking the trauma of a situation and subverting it. It is a manner of control, of reclamation, of hijacking Pavlovian associations before they fully form and replacing them with artistic ones. It is the duty of the artist to interrogate every experience. But although I had experimented with the subject of the self, in particular the wounded self, in a variety of disciplines – from autobiographical writing to self-portraiture in oil painting, and the body itself in dance – my photographic self-portraits had never been driven by anything but vanity. The horror of the scarring, however, and the overwhelming sensuality of their placement, had me transfixed.

Most people who saw the photographs reacted with horror. “I can’t look at it, Sharanya – I’m sorry, I just can’t,” friend after friend told me. I’m certain there were some who reacted with a different kind of horror – appalled at my exhibitionism, perhaps. I am very well aware that what to me was a meditation on pain, a means of negotiating with the multiple complexities of an event that had left me shaken and hurt in more ways than one, was for others just victim vogue.

The responses intrigued me. I had shared these photos not to shock people, but because it was truly healing for me to have taken them. Those close to me, I realised, were reacting to the violence I had experienced, and not to the process by which I was dealing with it. Many avoided it altogether. “I wanted to call and ask to meet,” said someone, when we eventually spoke. “But I saw the pictures.” Only one person told me the photos were beautiful, and asked – almost as an afterthought – what had happened.

I answered the question very rarely, when it was asked. What mattered was that if I was well enough to subvert it, it meant I had survived it.

The body is the canvas of our personal mythologies, but we are conditioned to titivate and obscure its realities. The reality of my body today includes three beautiful gashes across my chest, just as it includes the scar at my navel and an assortment of idiosyncrasies better left to poetry. They may fade, or they may stay, testament. The body and its blood. All of it is beautiful. And every last mark I carry is mine.

There are scars we see, and then there are scars we can’t. Perhaps what drew me to honour these ones, etched across my body with brutal intention, was that to do so gave me another way of calligraphing the invisible ones. I was here. I am here. Here I am.

An adapted version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

A Song, Schnabel and A Handful of Sex Goddesses

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There’s a little something exciting happening mid-next week, as you may or may not already know. Meanwhile, though, here are a few more things that have me excited lately.

1. Candace Bushnell’s original Sex and The City columns in The New York Observer. I’m actually surprised to have not read about this on other blogs, so either I’m way ahead or way behind. Despite my affection for the TV show, I always kind of wondered if it had to be in some ways a little lowbrow (sue me), because it made  too ridiculous a number of women believe they they could see themselves reflected in it, realistically or otherwise. As a reader and writer, I also wished those columns that Carrie was constantly typing out in her undies would actually make it into the show in some way. And here they are, and heavens, they are gold. Finally I see, really and truly, why this was so groundbreaking, how it was writing like this that actually laid the blueprint for the cultural phenomenon. I take my pretentious writerly beret off to Candace Bushnell — this archive proves that no matter how many imitators, there really can only be one CB.

2. Jerome Kugan’s home-recorded cover of “On The Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady. Some covers really are better than the originals, and other covers of. Harry Connick Jr. ain’t got nothing on you, JK baby! This needs to go on your next album. So the poor folks who aren’t your friends can hear it too. Hahaha. ;)

3. This slightly snarky New York Times article says that Julian Schnabel is going to have a show in India. Where where where? Please say Chennai.

4. This 1996 essay by Sandra Cisneros, which I read in order to remind me again why it’s okay to be a certain kind of writer. This week I have been saying a litany of graces for the great ones who paved the way for someone like me to be myself and be okay with it. Without Frida, I don’t know if I would have been able to live with many aspects of myself. Without Sandra, I don’t know if I would have stopped writing funny, sexy, confessional poetry in favour of smarter, more serious stuff. Without my great-grandmother Valliamma, I don’t know if I could have learnt how to feel the fear and do it anyway. There is no shame in acknowledging inspiration.

5. Two Guardian profiles on gifted bad girls, Manet’s muse, Victorine Meurent, and another Guadalupe, Lupe Yoli.

Ugo Untoro + How To Eat A Wolf

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I never did blog about the Utan Kayu International Literary Biennale 2007, and neither did I blog about the Singapore Writers’ Festival 2007 — both festivals which invited me and took care of me and fed my stomach, literary appetite and ego very well in all. Blogging about the first was sidetracked by preparing to move back to India, and as for the second, well — if you don’t know what kept me distracted at the same time, leave be! Am just thinking about this now as I’m heading off to Mumbai this week for another major festival, Kitab, for which I have the privilege of doing the first event open to the public this year.

The Biennale, I think, will remain in my memory as a pivotal career and life experience. It was my first real festival, my first taste of the literary high life (as opposed to the boho cult stuff, and utter mediocrity). It brought me closer to three friends, one of whom I in fact feel like I owe a great professional and personal amount to, and made me several more. It was a spiritual, thrilling, insightful ten days. I really must blog about the whole experience.

Reading at Borobudur was one thing, visiting Candi Prambanan was another, but this — this was the moment when I realised that I really and truly was what I always wanted to be. A writer.

Ugo Untoro's painting inspired by my poem

This was a very, very special moment. I am in front of the painting “Selamat Datang” by the Indonesian painter Ugo Untoro, which was inspired by my poem “How To Eat A Wolf”. Selamat Datang means Welcome in Bahasa, and this artwork was at the entrance of the exhibit, which featured various Indonesian artists’ interpretations of the prose and poetry of the writers participating in the Biennale. This was easily one of the proudest moments in my life, and completely unexpected — it had never crossed my mind until then that so large and beautiful a painting by a famous painter could somehow be attached to any poem of mine.