During the pandemic, my home changed as my family members worked, attended school and college from home. The museum where I had volunteered weekly for 20 years was closed. My work at my studio, Studio PAUSE, a community space for art and stories changed, and I found myself week after week, month after month, thinking, “Nobody is here. Still, there is nobody here!” The wall where anyone could show their art was blank. The writing sessions had moved online. Zoomceptions were few.
It took a while before I noticed someone was here. It was me. As I started to explore my work in a new way, I watched what I would allow myself to create.
When I finally felt okay playing music in the dead silent community center, I found the good old Hindi songs, playing on shuffle from my iTunes app, still spoke to me.
One day “Kafirana sa hai, Ishq hai ya Kya hai?” stopped me. It feels blasphemous, Is this love or what is it, the lyrics asked.
I had not seen the 2018 movie Kedarnath, but the song had moved me greatly. I pulled out four canvasses I had bought for a commission which I had discontinued. I had been asked to remove some elements related to George Floyd from that project and was given no explanation for it. So instead, I painted on it an intense deep green-blue. A month earlier the actor from Kedarnath, Sushant Singh Rajput, was believed to have killed himself. The shock had rippled through our community. He will never smile or sing again. I wrote the lyrics in my expressive calligraphic style, carving into the paint as well as applying paint to write in the Devanagari script and the Roman cursive. I wrote a new word, “Kafirana” written by new poets. I had lost touch with my native scripts while I lived my life in the US. They had gone quiet. Sushant, I found, also means quiet.
Another blue-green canvas sang, “Albela sajan aayo ri, Mora ati man sukh payo ri”. My charming beloved had come, My heart feels very happy now, it said.
I remembered the video from the 2015 movie Bajirao Mastani where Kashibai runs through the palace carrying a huge flag, thrilled at her beloved’s return home. I re-discovered my old favorite Devanagari letters which I had first fallen in love with when I studied calligraphy in art school in Bombay in the late 1980s. Who was this classical Hindi song speaking of?
Hawa Hawa played, from that most special album from the 2011 movie Rockstar. I had made all the art for my first solo show in Oct 2012 listening to this album. But I had never made any songs visual. This song, meaning Wind, Wind, tells the story of a queen who couldn’t stay within the golden walls of her palace and needed to run bare feet into the wind, along with the wind. It clearly spoke of me—the old me. As I made a deep rani-pink, a red-infused variation on the pink color of queens, and wrote the lyrics on it, I saw myself now, sitting here every day. Who am I if I am not running?
“Yeh Zameen chup hai, Aasmaan chup hai, Phir yeh dhadkan si, Charsu kya hai.” The earth is silent, the sky is silent, then what is this heartbeat, I hear all around me, asked an old favorite song, as I stood painting among my studio walls painted in the colors Baked Clay and Endless Sky. A question the queen Razia Sultan had asked herself in that 1983 movie – the poet imagining the state of the first Muslim woman to be emperor of the subcontinent of India in the 13th century spoke to me during the 2020 pandemic. What is it then?
I entered Sing to Me, Mr. Shuffle!, the story of a collaboration with an app and an algorithm for my first online presentation at Our Stories Virtual Festival hosted by Asian Arts and Culture Center, Towson University, Maryland. As I write this, I document a journey towards a new beginning, and a return to bring along the old me.
I went back to yoga after years. I had first learned it when I attended the first standard in Bombay. I learned about chakras and found connections with stories I have collected from friends. I explored the bright colors in my paintings.
“Whose work is this,” an old friend asked when she finally left her home in July. “Mine,” I laughed. She looked at me in surprise.
Then, poems! Bazaar, a recurring dream I had made into an artist’s book in 2012, was selected to be part of the Virginia Poet Laureate Luisa A. Igloria’s Poem-A-Day project in April 2021. It was also made into a poetry video by artist Mary Louise Marino who saw how it connected with her own experience.
I had finally applied for citizenship, and found a poem emerge on an emotional afternoon before the test. In Kanyadaan, Again, I think about the ceremony where a father gives away his daughter at a Hindu wedding. I beg my father—who had fought for the freedom of India and had given me away to my American husband when he came for our wedding—to give me away again, from one flag to another.
“I hope he will he say: Go! Be a freedom fighter for yourself
in the country which fought the same imperialists
And vote! So its children can always be free
and so yours can be assured that their country
is also their Motherland.”
— Excerpt from Sushmita Mazumdar’s Poem ‘Kanyaadan Again’
Colors, languages, and scripts had exploded out of me—my heritage, a leap past the 21 years in the US and beyond! I put it all into my new website.
On June 8, I voted for the first time in 21 years. I will be heard. I went to vote with my husband and my son.
On June 10, I was at a poetry reading where I read aloud my first Hindi poem, Aaj Summer Camp Mein, American accent and all, accompanied by its English translation which was published earlier this year in Written in Arlington. It’s about a new staff member who was at my daughter’s camp and how my daughter loved her long black hair, her dark eyes, and had asked: Is Ms. Maheen like me? Is she Indian?
This was all new for me. It had taken a global pandemic for a flood of the old me to emerge and merge with the now me, leading to a new me, hopefully moving toward a more complete me.
Sushmita Mazumdar is a self-taught writer and book artist, writing stories from her childhood for her American children and making them into handmade storybooks. Encouraging everyone to share their stories of home, heritage, and migration she opened Studio Pause in 2013 mixing community voices into her own work, allowing cross-cultural collaborations and dialogues to inform her creations.