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It was an exuberant Kannada Koota gathering. The auditorium was packed with members of the S.F Bay Area chapter of the Kannada association. My aunt and I were part of the audience, cheering along as various singers and dancers entertained us. A drama/skit was announced shortly after intermission. Satiated with samosas and hot chai served in the lobby outside, I expected the typical performance by amateur actors. But one stood out. Not just for the obvious fact that she was the only ‘non-Indian’ woman in the cast, but because of her stage presence, her diction, her command over the Kannada language. I then learned that she had acted in a couple of Kannada movies, besides doing theater. My curiosity piqued, I asked my aunt about her and found that they went back a long way – as faculty wives at IIT Kanpur of the 60s and 70s.
Karen Vasudev – I was told – has essayed many other roles in her rather interesting life; faculty wife, mother, grandmother, Madhubani artist, avid crochet artist, needlepoint enthusiast, and a Manager in the hi-tech arena. These are just a few labels she has collected along the way. Having met her a few times since, I frankly admit to being inspired, awed and just plain gobsmacked at the various ways she has given vent to her creative energies! She is an artist in the truest sense of the term. And if you wax eloquent at her various accomplishments – she will quite simply tell you, that she is only doing what she loves to do! To Create.
Growing up in the 1940s and ’50s – the daughter of a Jewish mother who was a skilled dressmaker, Karen remembers she was always engaged in drawing, painting or doing some type of art. Her mother’s practical and frugal approach to life was colored by growing up during the Depression era. And the ‘waste not, want not‘ attitude was something she extended to everything she explored. “You have to complete whatever you take up, before moving on to the next thing” – Karen can still hear her mother’s voice in her head! This approach to life in general, instilled a discipline that helped her lead her life.
But over the years she realized that her mind loved to create in different directions all at once. So she might be painting something, but she will also want to explore the same pattern through crochet, or needlepoint. Her conditioning and the voice in her head, made things difficult initially! She was plagued with guilt when she thought of the many projects that was always ‘in progress’, or put away with the intention of getting to them at a later time. She laughingly points to her “Work in progress corner”, and concedes that over time, she has managed to be at peace about this facet of her creative personality.
Marriage and Discovering India:
Karen was a freshman at the University of Washington at Seattle, when she met a Chemical Engineering student from Bangalore, India – who was working towards his Phd – Arakere Vasudev. Their chemistry must have been right, because she married him at the age of 19! They have been married for over 50 years now, and he has always been supportive of her artistic endeavors.
And so began her 13 year love affair with India. Her time in Kanpur saw her learning Hindi and Kannada languages, cooking Indian food, exploring Batik, painting pottery and teaching herself to play the guitar. All this, while she went on to have her three sons.
During her time living in Mumbai (Bombay), she taught herself embroidery, crochet, pen & ink painting. As with most things, Karen is mostly self-taught – watching others, asking questions, listening and exploring on her own; rather than receive formal training which she finds to be limiting. “Creativity is not just about being an artist. It is a state of mind, and a way of looking at things visually; in listening, and in how you problem solve and analyze a process”, she says. True learning happens when you take what you see, and place it in the context of where you are when you perceive it. “One should take in and experience everything just as IT IS, and not what IS NOT. Only then can you begin to question and understand something without judgement.”
The history, customs, religion, language, climate, location – of a place – shapes the experience. Karen believes that by respecting and understanding things in this framework, we can also learn about ourselves and our cultural heritage. She states that judgements and comparisons hinder the process of learning and expression.
It was during this period in the 1970s in Mumbai, that she first found a book on Madhubani art. Her passion for this art form unfurled inside her and left its rich imprint on her creativity.
Madhubani or Mithila painting:
This art form originated in the Mithila region of India and Nepal. The artists, predominantly womenfolk, apply the paint with fingers, twigs, brushes, nib-pens, and matchsticks, using natural dyes and pigments. The designs are often ritual in nature, and there are five different styles within the art form – signifying different societal castes. People traditionally decorated freshly plastered mud walls and floors of huts. But cloth, handmade paper and canvas are also used today. Design motifs are taken from nature, as well as the depiction of daily life, poojas and weddings etc. Stylized human, and animal forms are rendered with exquisite artistry, juxtaposing organic shapes with eye-catching geometrical patterns. The practice of filling in empty spaces in the background with lines and marks is a particular feature of this art form.
The work of Madhubani artists like, Sita Devi, Jagadamba Devi, Chandrabhushan (to name a few) – have received, national and international recognition over the years. The Govt. of India has awarded many artists the Padma Shri award, and brought their work into the mainstream of art consciousness.
With her love of patterns, designs and color, Karen is drawn to stylized art forms, rather than the traditional ‘realistic’ depictions. Her work has been, and is still being influenced by many things. She is always open to exploring and learning about new art forms – understanding the context and meanings behind every style. This gives her a ‘peek’ into that particular creative process, which in turn aides her own creativity.
Madhubani art, showcases a simplistic ‘feel’ in terms of subject matter – juxtaposed with complex, detailed pattern and bold colors. This counterbalance both intrigued and amazed Karen’s artistic sensibilities. She loves to explore this art form and further enhances it by adding her own personal twists by incorporating elements of the other techniques she has learned, like Zentangle, for example.
Her life in India was a revelation of many different art forms – Rangoli, Mandalas, Henna designs, Kalamkari and Madhubani – are just a few of the many. She learned chikankari embroidery, mirror work and batik as well.
Personal Growth through Art:
Exploring various styles and techniques and including them into her own art, helps Karen keep things interesting and fresh. She finds the act of trying new techniques both challenging and relaxing at the same time. Most importantly, it is great fun! Since she prefers self learning and experimenting to formal learning, she finds that it adds to the process of self discovery. It can be a time consuming process and comes with its own challenges. This in turn teaches her patience and helps reduce stress.
Karen has a physical reaction to everything she creates. She “feels” the patterns transmit their energy up through her fingers, moving up her arms, to her brain and heart – moving down again towards her fingers. Her ability to totally immerse herself in her work, with immense focus comes naturally to her. She does not see a separation between the analytical and the creative sides of herself. They coexist, and grow as one, giving and taking from each other.
This method of creative exploration has helped her bring a different approach to her career in high tech – as well as in her personal life.
Hi Tech Career :
Upon returning from India in 1978, Karen entered the hi tech field when computers were starting to be a part of the work environment. She relates an experience where she took up the challenge of designing a form on a word processor, tinkering with it, and painstakingly managing to create a viable standardized user friendly form. The challenge in solving such problems required a creativity that went hand in hand with the analytical component. Karen points out that Art is at its core, a highly analytical endeavor. Artists are constantly analyzing space, patterns, designs, color, balance etc.
Karen Vasudev taught Project Management for Information Technology, during her long tenure at Cisco systems. She could not have foreseen her role as an IT manager, while she was exploring art forms in Mumbai. But she came to realize that the analytical approach she took with her art, was not very different from what was required in hi tech. It was simply a matter of application.
Message to Women:
I asked Karen to address the main element of ‘The Changing Woman’ series – the idea that women have to shape-shift and evolve their personal identity constantly to fit the many roles they assume through their lives.
She surprised me by saying she did not think women need to ‘reinvent’ themselves. “A woman is many people at the same time”, she said. They just need to expand the essence of who they are, by pursuing different things as life takes them down its many paths – some chosen, others dictated/ expected. They can do this by constantly learning and applying their intuitive knowledge to different situations.
She firmly believes that we are not defined by what role we play at home or at our jobs. Our career choices are simply things we undertake based on the situational demands and needs at certain times. But no matter how busy the work front gets, Karen believes it is very important to spend time daily on something that is just for yourself.
Pursuing something for enjoyment is relaxing. The end goal is to have fun and broaden personal perspectives – not to turn it into a career or gain material success necessarily.
“Creativity is at the core of our beings. All that we need do – is unlock it.”
Karen Vasudev – the consummate artist and teacher – exhorts us to try something new! She is the invited artist at the India Community Center, Milpitas.
Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. She has held art shows in London, Bangalore and locally here in California.