Tag Archives: Art

An Ode to Women of Color

Skin of Soil

Nature’s first vision is brown 

her first awakening upon the nascent earth, 

a blur of tawny and bronze 

and walnut and wheat.

 

Nature’s first memory is soil 

spilling from the ends 

of her matted mane, 

spilling into empty oceans, 

filling a parched planet 

who never even knew its

own thirst. 

          

Nature’s first footsteps forge dusky craters, 

her rage and her fire bubbling beneath, 

threatening to turn even dewdrops dark, 

to slay sunlight and stars both,

 

but,

 

Nature was patient, 

sewing tree trunks 

into the ground’s silent scars. 

 

Where nature roams there is brown, 

unblinking, unyielding and endless. 

 

So how can i think to reject

the color of the skin 

that clothes me, that shelters

all my thousand creatures 

and flowers and roots,  

how can i bear to soften 

the pigment that endures

my lightning and tears 

and inborn fury.

How can i dare to 

hate the brown that is all

but the rippled 

reflection of nature herself.

——

Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, CA. Aside from being the assistant culture editor of India Currents, she is the editor-in-chief of her school’s news-zine The Roar. She is also the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton, and uses her role to spread a love of poetry in her community.


Artwork by Feminist, Sravya Attaluri.

SFIFF: An Asian Film Feast

A notable cultural event of the SF Bay Area, the 22nd San Francisco Independent Film Festival features poignant and evocative content. From clever gangster dramas to social dystopias to dark comedies, the myriad of Asian films presented at this event provide a stirring yet raw glimpse into the Asian identity.

The festival takes place from January 29th to February 13th at the Roxie Theater and Victoria Theater in San Francisco. The content presented is refreshing and diverse. San Francisco audiences will have the  awesome opportunity to view new independent films and digital programs from around the world, including India, China, and Japan. This year’s festival has 57 shorts and 47 features from 21 countries. Complete program information can be found at  www.sfindie.com

Regular tickets are $15 and Opening Night tickets are $25 (21up). The FestPass, good for all screenings and parties at the Festival, is $250. Advance tickets are available now at sfindie.com and at 415.552.5580. 

A Lesson in Mindfulness at Yale University

A Toast to your Good Health

Some sixty people gathered at the Yale University Art Gallery on a summer afternoon to mindfully gaze at a single painting. It was the only one in the vast space. They stared and stared at a James Turrell print – the white, rectangular coffin-like box at the center of the frame was engulfed by varying shades of grey and black. It was bleak, and I wasn’t connecting with the artist. 

But then, standing by were Anne Dutton, teacher of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course at the Yale Stress Center, and Danielle Casioppo, a Health Educator for Being Well at Yale. Turrell’s ‘Shanta’ is the culmination of a five-week, drop-in session of mindfulness in art. 

Extensive research has established a strong link between meditation and neuroplasticity – the ability of our brain to change in response to something that we do and experience. In a 2008 paper titled Buddha Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation, authors Richard J. Davidson and Antoine Lutz point to several studies, including one which registered a stronger activation in regions of the brain of expert meditators – with an average of 19,000 hours of practice – compared to beginners.  

Intimidating data like this can leave many of us staring with longing and trepidation at the summit from base camp. But here’s some astoundingly good news: Harvard researchers in 2011 discovered a staggering link between short-term mindfulness practice and a change in brain physiology. The researchers took magnetic resonance images of 16 newbies before and after they enrolled in an eight-week MBSR program. The result? An increase in grey matter within the left hippocampus, compared to the control group of 17 individuals. After just eight weeks of practice, the brains of MBSR participants underwent a positive change in regions involved with learning and memory, the regulation of emotion, and perspective taking. 

Here I was, staring at a Turrell. 

“My work is more about your seeing than it is about my seeing, although it is a product of my seeing. I’m also interested in the sense of presence of space; that is space where you feel a presence, almost an entity — that physical feeling and power that space can give,” Turrell states on his website.

Are there techniques to help broaden one’s perception? I was about to find out. 

The group’s goal was to apply mindfulness methods to heighten awareness, to pay attention in a particular way, and to be undistracted by all other stimuli. 

To achieve this, we began with a body scan led by Danielle. From the toes to the head, you direct your awareness to specific parts of your body to identify tightness or discomfort. You mentally relax the area and somewhere along the way, you start to relax. Anne then had everyone focus on the breath – the sensation of the in-breath and out-breath.   

At the end of this exercise, we were ready to view the art again. Some reactions from the participants:

  • The box looked less like a coffin.
  • The art itself had gained awareness – it was reaching out to the viewer from the frame.
  • The participants reflected in the glass had become a part of the work.
  • After meditation there is a feeling of being unconfined. The little white box was now quite lovely.

There are so many ways of looking at art. At experiences. At life. At each other. At ourselves.  

“We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are,” Anais Nin reportedly said. 

My afternoon at Yale culminated with my seeing the box not solely as a coffin, but as a drawer jutting out from the grey wall. A space opening up for me to fill with color – possibly kites, possibly scarves, injecting joy to the image. 

Both formal and informal mindfulness practice have three components, Anne told me.

  • Attention
  • Intention
  • Attitude – acceptance of an experience. You don’t have to like the experience – resisting it creates stress. It’s a bit like me becoming more open to the Turrell piece. 

I then asked Danielle if she could give you a simple, daily mindfulness practice that will fit into your busy life. She came up with this – but first, she offers some guidelines.

  • Do one task and one task only. For example, listen to the sound of water as you pour yourself some tea. Feel the warm cup in your hands. Be aware of these simple sounds and sensations. That means no texting while drinking tea, for instance. Don’t put your mind on autopilot all the time. 
  • Be aware of what you are thinking. “You don’t have to believe everything you think. You don’t have to act on everything you think if you don’t want to,” she says. 

And now, the practice. 

  • Start with one minute of observing your breath, once a day. In-breath. Out-breath. You can do this sitting or lying down. When the mind wanders, “gently, kindly, bring it back to the breath,” Danielle advises. 
  • After a week, increase your practice to two times a day, one minute each in the morning and before bedtime.
  • During the third week, you could do two minutes two times a day, or three minutes once a day. 

“You are giving yourself permission to pause and just be with your breath, your body, your cup of tea, your spouse, your child, your friend, nature – be fully present with that other entity. Allow the time to mono-task. Doing that is so good for our brains, our emotional self,” Danielle says. “That’s how we get so much more out of life.”  

Today’s toast comes hot off the stove

Sujata Srinivasan is an award-winning Connecticut-based journalist with the nonprofit Connecticut Health Investigative Team. Web: www.sujatasrinivasan.com. Twitter @SujataSrini

 

Of Caves, Art And Piety

It was 627 A.D. when Hsuan-Tsang, a Buddhist monk, left China under the cover of night and headed westward, to seek out original Buddhist texts and teachings. He was dissatisfied with the contradictions that he found in several schools of Buddhism extant in China at that time, and made his way across the Himalayas to India, the land where Buddhism was born. When he spent fourteen years in India gathering scholarly books, documents and copious notes, Buddhism had already been a presence in India for 1000 years prior.

Siddhartha, later known as Buddha (बुद्ध, Sanskrit, meaning ‘the enlightened one’) was born in Lumbini (in present day Nepal) in circa 550 B.C. As the historical narrative goes, he was a prince, cosseted in the palace as a child. Through divine machinations that transpired when he was a young man, he realized that life was filled with suffering that

Panoramic view of Ajanta caves in the Western Ghats perched above the gorge of the Waghora River, Maharashtra.

culminated in death. This realization led to his transformation into an ascetic, and initiated him on a quest to realize the ultimate Truth of this existence. He attained this enlightenment in Bodh Gaya (in present day Bihar, India), expounded his knowledge and philosophy to receptive followers, and gave up his earthly body in circa 450 B.C. In his day, Buddha would have been known as a ‘Sramana’ (श्रमण, Sanskrit). This term came to connote a group of itinerant monks who practiced severe austerities to attain spiritual liberation, but did not subscribe to the existing dominant social structures and rituals as expounded by the Vedic Hindu faiths. One of the Hindu tenets that was rejected by Buddha was the worship of anthropomorphic representations of divinity. However, the need of his followers for an image to meditate upon and adore resulted in the carving of images and temples.

There is scant archaeological evidence related to Buddhism prior to the time of Ashoka (304-232 B.C.). A Maurya emperor and a victorious conqueror, Ashoka lorded over an empire that rivaled the largest in the world at its time and stretched from Afghanistan in the west to Bengal in the east, and excluded only the southernmost tip of India. However, after a particularly bloody battle in Kalinga (in present day Odisha) in 260 B.C., Ashoka regretted his life of cruelty and wholeheartedly embraced a path of tolerance and Buddhism. His patronage of monks, missionaries, and monasteries as far afield as Sri Lanka, Greece and Egypt, and promotion of the religion through royal edicts arguably caused the metamorphosis of what was a minor philosophical school into a religion that the world inherited.

While royal means led to impressive achievements including the construction of free-standing Buddhist temples called stupas like the one in Sanchi (in Madhya Pradesh), lesser royalty and monks used simple tools to carve into rocky mountains. In addition to the use of natural caves and the extension of natural caves into retreats, caves were excavated from rocks and fashioned as utilitarian retreats for monks to shelter from the elements and for meditation, and these then evolved into more ornate places of worship. Such Buddhist cave excavations were largely concentrated around 200 B.C. to 600 A.D. and approximately a thousand rock-cut caves in India are attributed to Buddhists. Several examples exist in the Deccan Plateau centered around the Western Ghats mountain range.

The Ajanta cave system is in Maharashtra, and comprises twenty-nine identified caves. These caves are carved out of a horse-shoe shaped mountain face flanking the Waghora river, and are among the greatest surviving examples of ancient Indian cave-art. The site is protected under the aegis of the Archaeological Survey of India, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. These caves are about 15 kilometers from Ajanta village, about 100 kilometers by road from Aurangabad airport, and 55 kilometers from the Jalgaon train station.

Ajanta draws large crowds of international practitioners of Buddhism- it continues to be a powerful religious site.

I found myself in the Aurangabad airport one sunny mid-morning in January 2010, waiting for a taxi along with a couple of friends. Our plan was to spend the afternoon visiting the Ajanta caves, and take a flight back to Mumbai from Aurangabad late that evening. While that worked for our hectic schedule, taking in the caves at a more sedate pace, along with a visit to the neighboring Ellora caves, would probably have been a better idea.

The construction of the Ajanta caves occurred in two phases: the first occurring at around 200 B.C. under the patronage of the Satavahana dynasty, and the second at about 450-600 A.D. by the Vakataka emperors, notably Harisena. The caves were not created chronologically in the order that they are seen now, and embellishments of the caves appear to have been carried out continuously. Thus, as one can imagine, dating of the caves may be approximate. While several of the caves were excavated with the intention of making ‘viharas’ or residential retreats for monks, other caves were ‘chaitya-grihas’ or prayer halls.

I found Cave 19 particularly striking, with beautiful tall ornate pillars leading up to an impressive domed stupa that is offset by paintings on the walls and ceiling. Although the caves themselves, along with their location, heightened my senses, I was particularly impressed by the fact that this ancient monument is not merely a conglomeration of man-made rock caves of archaeological importance. A large international group of Buddhist monks was also visiting on that day, and were a testament to the fact that the spiritual draw of Ajanta

Paintings on ceilings

continues unabated. Their solemn silence, orderly progression, and obvious piety towards Buddha provided context to my experience, probably one that was intended by the monks who created these caves.

Images and statues of Buddha are present in some of the caves. The earlier Hinayana doctrine of Buddhism did not permit the worship of anthropomorphic images of Buddha, but this was relaxed with the ascent of the later doctrine of Mahayana around the first century B.C. The domed stupas in the prayer halls, and the pillars in several of the caves are carved and painted with decorations that tell stories of the life of Buddha. Interspersed with the images of Buddha are carvings and paintings of dancing girls, cavorting couples, court scenes, and patterns of floral, artistic and geometric patterns – the artisans evidently saw a natural and divine beauty in all aspects of a secular and religious life. Beautiful paintings adorn the walls and ceilings, and the bright colors which remain after a lapse of over 2000 years hint at the vibrance which the caves must have reveled in, when they were created. Even as I tried to take photographs in the dim darkness of the caves as a 21st century tourist, (flash photography is prohibited in the Ajanta caves), I wondered about the conditions in which the artists of yore created the glorious art that we are fortunate to still visualize.

Painting on wall – Buddha with followers

Several other examples of Buddhist cave-art exist in Maharashtra. These include the Ellora caves which adjoin Ajanta, and is relatively more recent (600-1000 A.D.) exhibiting highly ornate decorations; and the Nasik/Pandavleni caves which are a group of 24 caves created between 100 B.C. and 300 A.D. The earliest examples of Buddhist rock-cut architecture are seen in the Barabar Hill caves in Bihar, and is attributed to Ashoka himself. The ‘Chaitra arch’ at the entrance of the Lomas-Rishi cave of the Barabar Hill caves was an important architectural motif for centuries to come, and the highly polished interior walls and floors of these granite caves were remarkable for its time. The Saru-Maru Buddhist cave/stupa complex in Madhya Pradesh is about 120 kilometers south of Sanchi. Although these caves are natural, they contain edicts which proclaim that Ashoka visited the site prior to becoming the emperor. Another important site of Buddhist art and artifacts is the Udayagiri-Lalitagiri-Ratnagiri complex called the Diamond Triangle in Odisha. The artifacts and structures in these sites span the first to twelfth centuries A.D., includes several stupas, and also houses evidence of the tantric Vajrayana Buddhism.

Intricate carvings at the entrance to a cave

A remarkable facet of this ancient age is the extent of international activity that led to significant artistic and ideological conversations. The paintings on the walls of the Ajanta caves and the highly polished interiors of the Barabar Hill caves allude to a Greco-Indian influence that might have spread from the expeditions that Alexander the Great conducted in the 4th century B.C. The Silk Road spanning various routes from the Far-East to the Middle-East, Africa, and Europe, via India, facilitated commerce, but most importantly this also encouraged an exchange of ideas including those pertaining to Buddhism. The 5th century travels of the Chinese Buddhist monk Fa-Hsien paved the way for the 7th century traveler Hsuan-Tsang. Hsuan-Tsang has even recorded visiting a Buddhist philosopher residing in the Ajanta caves. The various land and sea routes that were developed in the name of commerce facilitated the spread and establishment of Buddhism over the borders of India into Afghanistan, Tibet, China, and Japan, and across the ocean to Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand, and even further afield with the flow of time.

These ancient caves have been forgotten and rejuvenated during periods in their long history, but the artistic, cultural and religious import that they convey continues to shine through with the permanence of the very rocks that they are made of.

L. Iyengar has lived and worked in India and the USA. She enjoys experiencing diverse cultures, and reads voraciously to vicariously experience those yet to be explored. She is the author of White Blackmail, a work of fiction and a medical thriller. Links to her recent publications may be found at www.liyengar.com.

 

A Museum All About Ice Cream?

A picture is worth a thousand words. The Museum of Ice Cream in San Francisco proves it. With hardly any words to describe ice cream, its history, chemical composition or any other facts one would expect from a building called a museum, this attaction is a genius masterpiece of Instagramable locations. Visitors can take their pictures against backdrops with various props and suck on sugar as they do so. A potent combination it seems because this museum is sold-out most days.

After a long and expensive wait we entered the museum on a Thursday, which was their solo night or the night when the first 350 people are allowed in at no charge. After a two-hour wait, as I moved into the museum, a sense of elation at having made it formed a euphoric cloud around me. Bubblegum pink trees tinseled and sparkled, forming a magical forest. From Nov. 23 to Jan. 6, the museum is transformed into a winter wonderland.

A young Berkeley graduate called Cool Whip invited us, a group of about 10, to give ourselves ice cream names. No one recognized the name I chose, Cassata. Around me my group members called themselves Oreo cookies and strawberry pops. Cassata, an ice cream I had always coveted growing up in India, was too exotic for the 25-to 30-years old around. I felt special.

Cool whip then proceeded to scoop out ice cream to each of us. We slurped our way to the room where we were invited to write messages on lids of ice cream containers and hang them as ornaments on the pink Christmas trees. An inane worthless exercise as by the end of the day all our messages would be trashed and place made for a fresh group of visitors. I read the messages on the lids fluttering from the pink trees. The messages indeed needed to be trashed. Nothing of consequence was written on them. Brains addled with sugar were too busy taking selfies against props.

The pool of sprinkles which holds more than 100 million custom-designed sprinkles was next. We sank our feet into a pool of multicolored rubber vermicelli. I was so relieved to sit down after the long wait that this was definitely my favorite attraction. The soft sprinkles cushioned me. I cracked a smile into my phone.

Room after room covered in multicolored disco wallpaper followed, each with props: a carousel horse, two giant pink cherries, upside down trees, tunnel of lights, mirrored walls, pink wall telephones, white unicorns and more to take pictures with. In every room we were plied with sugar: ice-cream bars, mochi balls, hot chocolate, and candy floss. We emerged into a shop that had more props to take pictures with.

The visit took about an hour and half. We were always with a group leader. Entrance is $38; free for children 2 and younger. Groups of 10 or more can buy tickets at the discounted rate of $29 per ticket. The ticket is only valid on the date of the ticket.

I bid adieu to the sparkling pink forest, with the unicorn, the pink cherries and the disco walls. Will I come back for its new avatar post on Jan. 6? I think not. Even with a free entry, the so-called museum was not for me. However pictures shared on Facebook got a rave reaction. Everyone who saw a picture from the museum wanted to immediately jump into it. Perhaps that explains why what started as an exhibit in Fall 2017 has found a permanent home in San Francisco. It outlasted its sister locations in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles. What does that say for San Francisco? That $38 for Instagram-worthy pictures is chump chain for the wealthy denizens of Silicon Valley?

The museum is at 1 Grant Ave., San Francisco. 855-258-0719


Ritu Marwah is an award winning author, chef, debate coach, and mother of two boys. She lives in the Bay Area and has deep experience as a senior executive in Silicon Valley start-ups as well as with large corporations.

the fair and the unfair

The Fair and the Unfair

A Brown Culture and Its Light Canvases: Does Art Reveal Color Bias?

My five year old daughter can be many things. Energetic, loud, playful, adamant and by turns devilish and angelic. But, curiosity dominates her worldview. And this curiosity leads her to question the world  around her. Her questions can come at the most inopportune moments—usually when we are in public with words uttered in a loud, clear voice.

Sometimes the answer is simple, but there are times when I struggle to find an answer. Proudly displaying her class picture, she observed that she was darker than some of her friends. Also that while her own hair was curly, theirs was straight. I knew the probing questions would come later. And they did. “Why? Why don’t I have straight hair? Why is she lighter than me? How come she has different colored eyes?” Why, why, why. It wasn’t enough for me to tell her about the diverse world we live in. She insisted that she wanted to be like them!

And then I was left with a “Why” of my own. Why were skin and eye color and hair quality so important to her? Was this normal? Did it just stem from a feeling of struggling to belong? Or was it the influence of a subtler prejudice unknowingly perpetuated?

It made me question the values I live by, my own internal conditioning. My biases.

Many Indian-American parents have been forced to confront these very questions as they raise children here. Blond hair and blue eyed becomes a sought-after ideal to be. While Moana has her place on the toy shelf, Elsa takes the pride of place. Is it a testament to excellent marketing? Or a deeper bias? I am saddened that despite all the technological advances we have made, the subject of color still remains a controversial topic. And this remains especially salient if you are of Indian descent.

I cannot speak for the experience of other races, but I am a product of my own experiences.

Growing up, I was like my five-year-old girl today: curious and playful. I was also aware of the prejudices around me. Gender came with its own limitations, as did color bias and caste distinctions. Born into an upper middle class family where adults excelled in many areas, I witnessed some of these prejudices first hand. Through my formative years, I struggled to gain answers. And, with age, I learned to adapt while accepting some of these as “truths,” because I found them deeply enmeshed in the social and cultural mores around me.

I grew up. I became less curious.

Until I was forced to provide an answer to my 5-year-old daughter.

West Meets East—The Raja Ravi Varma Story
Before I could formulate an answer that would satisfy a five-year old, I had to first confront some questions on my own. I am a visual artist and acutely aware of the impact of visuals on the human mind. I started by questioning the nature of the visual representations that I grew up with.

A recent sale by Sotheby’s made headlines in the art world— the sale of a painting titled Damayanthi by the Prince of Painters—Raja Ravi Varma. It netted over a million US dollars, after garnering a lot of interest the world over. Based on the protagonist from the Sanskrit epic poem Nala and Damayanthi, the painting is a wonderful example of a merger between the European academic artistic style and a distinctly Indian sensibility.

It depicts the heroine Damayanthi, seated on a balcony or portico, lamenting the absence of her love, Nala. She is being fanned by her attendant Keshini. Her forlorn expression, head resting on her hand while she gazes out into the far landscape, speaks of her dejection and pathos. The balcony floor around the two women is strewn with flowers and the treatment of the darkening skies in the background further adds to the mood of the scene.

Artistically, Damayanthi is an excellent example of composition, style and treatment. The richly appointed saris jump off the canvas. The jewelry adorning the women is faithfully rendered. The European styled marbled balcony has been depicted beautifully. In these and a multitude of other details, the painting speaks of skill and sensitivity that makes for a great work of art.

In the latter part of the 18th century, India attracted a number of European artists, who were eager for their share of the “Eastern” experience. They were frequent residents of the royal courts and enjoyed their patronage. In these courts, another kind of artistic exchange took place, with an adoption of a Western ethos by Indian artists, exemplified by the life of Raja Ravi Varma.

Raja Ravi Varma belonged to the ruling house of Travancore in Kerala. His early life in a traditional matrilineal household was rich in the learning of classical music, Sanskrit, kathakali and the stories drawn from the mythology and lore of ancient India. His fledgling attempts at art was encouraged by an uncle who was an artist in the traditional and decorative Tanjore style of painting.

Subsequent royal patronage and association with European artists at the palace in Trivandrum, contributed to Ravi Varma’s style. He acquired new materials and techniques that greatly revolutionized the representation of art in the Indian context. His work included large scale canvas paintings of both portraits and landscapes. It transformed the world of miniatures, murals and decorative manuscript paintings that were prevalent in India at the time.

Raja Ravi Varma’s work centered on the realistic portrayal of his subject matter. His paintings frequently won prizes and Certificates of Merit at prestigious fine art exhibitions in India. He garnered international acclaim by winning a medal at the Vienna Art Exhibition. In short, he was the most sought after artist amongst the British Raj elite and the royal courts in India. His paintings were included in the royal art collections of the Gaekwads and the Wodeyars, to name a few. His fame and status mirrored that of his European counterpart,  John Singer Sargent —the noted portraitist of the Edwardian period.

I remember a visit to the Jaganmohan Palace Art Gallery in Mysore. The gallery has a wonderful collection of Raja Ravi Varma’s art. Portraits of Maharaja Chamarajendra Wodeyar and many of his family members line its walls. While in awe at the scale and grandeur of his work, I was struck by a singular fact. Barring a handful, his portrayal of the human form—especially the women—were almost always light-skinned. His scenes from mythology depict Rama and Krishna in the traditional manner —blue tinged skin. But otherwise they are always shown “fair” of color. It was clearly a case of borrowing from the European palette and marrying it with the cultural fabric of India. And in doing so, it added another layer to the status of the class of people who could afford his work. It also created a strong archetype for the “ideal woman.”

Ravi Varma did not stop at producing works of art for royalty and the gentry. He was keen on sharing his work with the masses. With a far-reaching vision, he established a lithographic printing press with his brother Raja Varma in Bombay. They embarked on an avant garde business model of producing oleographs (lithographs) of Hindu gods and goddesses, and scenes from Hindu mythology. This decision transformed Ravi Varma into a pop culture icon of that period—a sort of Andy Warholish Indian if you will. His work was now available to households across social strata all over India. They remain in print to the present day.

My grandparents’ household shrine (pooja room) was amply populated by Ravi Varma prints. I am sure my generation grew up with them without sparing a thought as to their creator. They were part of the popular culture; a fact accepted as par for the course. As the saying goes, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery.” Like Raja Ravi Varma’s initial attempts at art, I started out trying to render the beautiful lithographs around me and there were a fair handful of them strewn around me when I was young.

These images are etched in the minds of millions of Indians. When Gods and Goddesses from the Hindu pantheon are depicted as being light-skinned, then, how can we truly measure the “color bias” that takes root within us?

Lakshmi, resplendent in her red sari, standing on her lotus amidst an idyllic forested lake. Saraswathi, clad in pristine white, seated on a rocky river bank, playing her veena, a peacock in the foreground gazing up at her. Vishnu astride a mighty Garuda, flanked by his consorts Sridevi and Bhudevi, flying above the clouds. Yashodha and baby Krishna, in a sweet scene with a calf. These are forever etched in my memory through my attempts at trying to sketch them.

Amar Chitra Katha—The Comic Book Carries Forward
Raja Ravi Varma’s body of work greatly influenced another aspect of popular culture in India; its comic book industry. When a respected educationalist visualized a series of comics based on purely Indian values, he had to look no further for inspiration to base his cover images on. Anant Pai’s ever popular Amar Chitra Katha series (ACK) was a household name during my childhood and continues to be part of children’s bookshelves all across the world.

As an Indian-American parent, I find myself constantly looking for sources to inculcate in my daughter the values and traditions I grew up with. And I find myself going back to Amar Chitra Katha almost as much, or possibly even more often than my collection of Asterix the Gaul or The Adventures of TinTin, which were also an important relic of my childhood.

The first ACK comic book, Krishna, was printed in 1969.  The second book printed in 1970 was the first to feature a female protagonist—Shakuntala.  Based on Kalidasa’s classical Sanskrit poem Abhigyana Shakuntalam, she remains a favorite heroine through the ages with her story being told in a multitude of versions, through various media—paintings, plays and film. Ravi Varma painted Shakuntala in a number of versions and his lithograph The Birth of Shakuntala won a coveted award.

Karline McLain, Professor of Religious Studies at Bucknell University in her book, India’s Immortal Comic Books —Gods, Kings and Other Heroes offers an unbiased, fresh perspective on the social, cultural and global impact of ACK and other Indian comic books. Her work has been awarded the Edward Cameron Dimock, Jr. Book Prize in the Indian Humanities by the American Institute of Indian Studies, and is considered by many to be the “go to” resource for teachers and students alike. Reading the book has provided me with an opportunity to critically examine my connection with ACK comics.

McLain goes into the ways of visual characterization of heroes, heroines and villains in ACK comics. She also dedicates a section to the portrayal of ACK’s female protagonists and the inspiration drawn from the archetype set by Raja Ravi Varma’s visual representation of the “ideal” woman.

In my reading of Professor McLain’s research on Ravi Varma’s work, I was intrigued to discover that while he enjoyed great success and fame as an artist, there were voices that spoke up against his artistic style. A group of artists and scholars formed the Bengal School of Art under the leadership of artist Abanindranath Tagore and denounced Ravi Varma’s “modernistic” methods. They maintained that his work lacked “Indianness” and felt that he reduced epic Indian icons and subjects to a common man’s level, treating them without the dignity they deserved. They clearly supported a more traditional Indian aesthetic. This group, closely linked to the nationalist movement in India, secured the dismissal of Ravi Varma from high art circles at the dawn of the 20th century. Despite this turn of events, his art endured. His lithographs succeeded in influencing India’s visual art and culture for the ages yet to come.

Amar Chitra Katha printed the stories of other female protagonists—Savitri, Padmini, Damayanti, Sita, Mirabai. They were all portrayed in a similar vein—distinctly feminine and light-skinned. Since its inception in 1967, the ACK series has sold over 100 million copies worldwide. Raja Ravi Varma’s influence extended into the popular world through Anant Pai’s comics where  the “ideal” idea of light-skinned femininity was further extended.

While my daughter is eager to ask her questions, I will ask a few of my own. How far back can we trace this bias of “fairness” that has nothing to do with honesty or justice? Was it always a part of our psyche? How firmly rooted is it in our cultural and social ethos of present day?  From Mumbai to Manhattan, the birth of a child is cause for celebration. While the health of the newborn and mother are enquired over, the discussion moves on very quickly to the vital statistics. Weight, height, gender, and name are discussed and exclaimed over. And then comes the comment about color. Albeit well intentioned, this particular qualifier is swiftly inserted into the list of adjectives used to describe the newborn. Amidst a torrent of gushing adjectives and glowing remarks there is a subtle pause…and the “but” makes its appearance, followed by an observation about the baby’s complexion. Often times the commentator is unaware of their own bias. But the verdict is given. If it escapes the list at this time, it will enter the fray even before the child can begin to speak its first word. And somewhere down the years it will worm its way into the child’s self image. Is this what we want for our children? Is this fair?

In an interesting turn of events, a Bollywood actor Abhay Deol recently started a debate by calling out products in the cosmetics industry that cater to color bias. His Facebook campaign shed light on ads featuring internationally famous brand names—both products and the stars who endorse them. Fair and Lovely and certain products of its ilk are endorsed by well known Bollywood actors and actresses. In Facebook posts titled “2-in-1 Fairness Cream” and “We Are Not a Racist Country,”  Deol used sarcasm and humor to shed light on how color bias has permeated the social and moral consciousness in India and the world over.

As a counterpoint to these posts he hailed fellow actress and filmmaker Nandita Das. Her “Dark is Beautiful” campaign was an important and refreshing change, he said. With the tag line “Stay Unfair, Stay Beautiful,” the campaign ad features her own face with dusky complexion, with no hint at help from Photoshop or otherwise. The message included in the ad actually calls for a social debate on  color bias and the ensuing pressure to look “fair.”

Abhay Deol’s bold stance and Nandita Das’s effort at going up against popular notions and ideas are applause worthy. While neither act might sway public opinion on a grand scale, they have stirred vigorous debate and will hopefully cause a shift in impressionable minds.

I know I will have to delve deeper yet to erase the remnant of such biases within me. Confronting them is one thing, erasing them is quite another task. For me, writing this piece has been cathartic. Maybe the very act of reading this article is the start of a debate in you. Your very own personal, internal debate. A debate that goes beyond the belief that beauty is relegated to the paleness of a skin tone. A debate that celebrates the power of life—in black, white and all the shades of brown—with the pride it deserves. One can but hope!

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, Bengaluru and locally. She is a mother to a rambunctious little girl. When she is not trying to find answers to “why,” “what” and “how,” she loves to dabble in all things creative, and keep life interesting for her family.

From Leh To Lamayuru

Maitreya Buddha at Deskit MonasteryHere in the valley of the Indus, the sharp peaks of the Ladakh and Zanskar Ranges pierce the sky like jagged swords. The Indus River flows through the high Ladakhi plateau swiftly, sculpting the greater Himalayan landscape.

Fifty million years ago, the Indian plate surged across the Tethys Sea to collide with the stationary Eurasian plate. This dramatic impact resulted in a colossal pileup as sediment from the bottom of the sea was thrown up to form some of the Earth’s highest plateaus and mountain ranges. Today, the high desert landscape of Ladakh looks sepia toned in the unfiltered light of the mid-morning sun. Mountains of limestone, red sandstone and shale dominate the horizon. We follow the Indus River from Leh to Lamayuru in a SUV as it curves along the mountain ridges; the foamy white water rapids catching the sun now and then.

Several Himalayan villages dot the water’s edge like welcome desert oases. The valley at Nimmu village is stunning. Here the Indus meets its tributary Zanskar in an eddying confluence. Small green farms grow wheat, barley, vegetables, apples and juicy apricots. Poplar trees shimmer in the wind. Further down river, Basgo village is shaped like a cow’s head. Traditional Ladakhi women walk uphill, their hair in two long pigtails; their top hats decorated with rows of bright turquoise; their faces creased like weathered mountain ridges.

Confluence of Indus and Zanskar Rivers      Basgo Village is characterized by a Buddhist monastery (or Gompa) that is built into the mountain sitting precariously at the edge of a high ridge like a fortress, overlooking the fertile valley below. Like the quintessential churches that one finds in English villages, these Himalayan monasteries are the sites for social gatherings and cultural events for the local village folk.

We veer left on a bridge towards Alchi Gompa. Prayer flags—blue, white, red, green and yellow line the edge of the bridge, and flutter wildly in the wind while the brimming Indus flows rapidly below. Chortens, the little white mounds that house the relics and offerings, sit like meditating Buddhas along the roads and on the mountainsides.

       Alchi Gompa is unique in that it is situated downriver; we walk downhill in the shade of the poplars and willows past the stalls selling Tibetan wares, to the crumbling monastic complex or chos-‘khor. The enclave is attributed to the great Tibetan scholar Rinchen Zangpo, a visionary. When he sought to incorporate Tibetan Buddhism into the local culture around the 11th century, he employed Kashmiri artists in the area to create murals and sculptures to adorn the temples in the chos-‘khor.

The Alchi Sumsteg is a three-storied building within the enclave with elegant columns and ornate Kashmiri woodwork. We walk though to the main ceremonial hall, the Dukhang, where the monks assemble for worship and meals. Colorful mandalas and thangkhas hang down from the ceiling like prayer confetti. It is dark inside the inner sanctum, where the bejeweled miniature idol of Maitreya sits in eternal meditation. The chos-‘khor has a central courtyard with short apricot trees and faded prayer flags in the center and little shrines lining the perimeter.
The temple of Manjushri dedicated to Buddha’s disciple of the same name, has a very small, ornate entryway with a cave like interior. Once inside, we are awed by four gigantic figures of Manjushri sitting back to back on a common brightly colored pedestal. A naked bulb hangs from the ceiling, lighting up Manjushri’s red effeminate body adorned with bright jewelry—gold, green and turquoise.

The murals of the meditating Buddha are repetitive, like Warhol’s screen paintings. They line the walls of the temples and also the interior of the chortens in the temple complex.
It is noon by the time we leave Alchi. The sky is a limitless blue; a blazing sun sears the barren peaks to purples and reds. The scenery at Lamayuru is like a desolate moonscape. The wind has weathered the mountains here to form conical rocks. We are at once bathed in a golden light.

We part with the Indus at Khalste. The river snakes away from us towards the border town of Kargil, then past the border into Pakistan. The bucolic Ladakhi village houses have given way to military barracks. The Indian Army fought a war not far from here in 1999. Soldiers perform their exercises; long convoys of green trucks carry supplies, choking the road. On the hill above us, a soldier rests his gun on a pole bearing prayer flags. It is paradoxical: prayer flags blow mantras in the wind, promoting peace, compassion, strength and wisdom against the harsh backdrop of war and unrest.

Monastery at Lamayuru       Centuries ago, the Buddha looked eastward to spread his teachings. In Deskit Gompa, a gigantic golden sculpture of the Maitreya Buddha dominates the barren landscape of the Nubra Valley. In Thiksey Gompa, the statue of the Maitreya is 3 stories high. Also revered in this land of monasteries is the 14th Dalai Lama. He traveled westward as a young boy, across this unforgiving terrain to escape the Chinese invasion, to preserve the teachings of the Buddha. We encounter many monks in these monasteries. Some are Tibetan refugees, some are pariahs ostracized by their families.

Clad in maroon and yellow robes, their guttural chants rise and fall like spiritual waves. Some monks lead very simple lives, detached from the material pleasures of the world below them.

The hard life of the Ladakhi people is tied to the seasons. In the ephemeral days of summer, they earn a living by cultivating crops, driving tourists around and doing business in town. Markets are bustling, cattle graze on the banks of the Indus and children go to school in packed school buses. Then winter comes quickly, harshly. The cattle hurry into the sheds, their fodder is stored on the rooftops. Schools, shops and mountain passes close, shutting the mountains from the plains, bringing life to a halt.

Prayer flags with Chortens        We are touched by the warmth and openness of the mountain people. We learn from the Indus River, which knows no boundaries. Originating in China, the Indus, like Alfred Tennyson’s Brook chatters as it slips and slides through India before winding into Pakistan and finally curving and flowing into the Arabian Sea. Men may come and men may go, but the Indus seems to go on. Forever.

Rama Shivakumar’s travel writing has been published in India Currents, InTravel Magazine and Coldnoon Diaries. Her short stories have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. Hailing from Bangalore, Rama now lives in the Washington DC area and works as a scientist in a biotechnology firm.
This article first appeared in inTravel magazine.


How to Get there
Leh is most accessible from New Delhi or Mumbai. There are direct 90-minute flights that take off from New Delhi or Mumbai to Leh every morning at 6 am. You need to arrange for a reliable car and  driver once you land at Leh to navigate the difficult mountain roads and high passes. Our trip was organized by Odati Adventure Tours and Travels. We had a Ladakhi driver Sonam, who drove his own SUV. Whilst driving us around, he also gave us insights into the Ladakhi life, which is incorporated into the essay.

Best Time to Visit
The best time to visit Leh is August, when the weather is dry and there is plenty of sunshine. The trip duration should be a minimum of 8 days to allow a day or two to acclimatize to the high altitude. We stayed in a resort in the village of Saboo.

What to Buy
The market at Leh is bustling with Himalayan wares—pashmina shawls, Kashmiri carpets, prayer flags and figurines of Tara Devi and the Maitreya Buddha. There are a number of restaurants featuring the local cuisine.

Other Sights
The article follows the Indus, a day trip that we took during our extended stay there. There are many sights to see in Leh like the Shanti Stupa, Thiksey Gompa, Hemis Gompa and the Army museum. Nubra Valley is a lovely overnight trip from Leh. The journey here is spectacular as we drive through the highest motorable pass, KhardungLa. Pangog Tso (lake) is another much-visited tourist destination. I chose to omit the more touristy sights from the travelogue and covered the day trip along the banks of the Indus, as it was a more  poignant drive in many ways. The Indus Valley and the backdrop of an ongoing conflict also was personally more interesting to me from a literary perspective.

The Rasa of Belonging

music1few days ago, the editor got me thinking about the concept of Rasa. “Entertainment is a desired effect of performance arts but not the primary goal. The primary goal is to transport the individual in the audience into another parallel reality, full of wonder, where he experiences the essence of his own consciousness, and reflects on spiritual and moral questions.” Per Wikipedia, that is how Natya Shastra—the ancient Indian text, explains the concept of Rasa.

2016 has been an interesting year, from a rasa and rasika (appreciator of rasa) point of view. The Grammy awards, with which I begin my research into music columns for the year, are a recognition of musical creativity and artistry. However, I like to believe that the most popular award, Record and Producer of the Year is in recognition of the hold a specific record has on the masses, it’s ability to transport listeners. This year there was a desi connection to the Record and Producer of the Year, for Uptown Funk, the Bruno Mars song that everybody was tapping their feet to! It was so popular that my ten year old and his friends danced to it at their school’s talent show.

It being this-kind-of-election year, I could not help give Jeff Bhasker, who did win the Grammys for both Record and Producer of the Year, more thought than perhaps I might have otherwise. He was born to an Indian-born father. Did he learn Indian music? Had his parents argued about which after-school classes he would go to when he was a boy? Did his ex-mayor father want him to be politically active? Does he now acknowledge that his son has more power over more people than his Mayoral office ever did? Growing up and now, did/ does Bhasker accept his Indianness as a “so-what” or did it bother him and people around him?

The next month I discovered Ryan (aka Narayan) Sijan, who came from the outside to immerse in Indianness. “When I was in India I learned quite a few traditional songs from gypsies in Rajasthan,” Sijan recalls. “I spent two weeks with them at a festival in the Thar desert. A few years later when I was in Turkey I heard someone singing a piece with almost the same melody, it had just been changed a little by the culture. That was a real inspiration to me, I realized how music can bridge time and distance.” Sijan had been wonder struck by the common weave in music around the world and created an album harnessing those sounds.

May was even more impactful, the story of a Pakistani group from Sachal Studios making music underground, in the face of Taliban oppression. What gives these musicians the courage to do this? What is it in the human spirit that makes us communicate to and seek Oneness in the many worlds we inhabit? The Sachal Studios music had, in effect, elevated moral consciousness and eliminated boundaries.

I interviewed Mahesh Vinayakram, a Carnatic trained artist touring currently with Cirque du Soleil; not just rendering his music, but also learning techniques such as “head voice” used mainly by Western vocalists.

It struck me that artists in general, are never satisfied with the status quo, theirs is not the world that needs mere upkeep and maintenance, for they constantly break built-up associations and create afresh to seek a different kind of communion, appeal to a different audience each time.

However, a thought-provoking perspective on Oneness was brought to light during my research on the column When a Song Becomes an Anthem,” Nation-building. Music and musicians have been harnessed to elect Governments, rally support, or just keep the political machine going, true. But when and how is a Nation built, what keeps its people together?

My research led me to conclude that at various times, national symbols, candidates, and leaders become representative of a collective spirit; but that the “collective spirit” gets re-configured periodically. Oneness is mistakenly defined by skin color and/ or beliefs, but that these buckets appear necessary when incumbents feel an ethnic/ economic loss, new-comers or some communities don’t feel included: Nobody knows how to belong, because there is apparently no common weave that can hold the community fabric together.

Serendipitously, I heard Bruce Springsteen interviewed on radio late one night. He said that while he was out one day during a politically/ economically uncertain time in our country, somebody while driving by, shouted out “We need you, Bruce!”

As to why somebody called out to him, that’s not important. What is poignant is that somebody called out to Springsteen as a musician. This year of writing has driven home the fact to me that the only pursuit and profession whose established goal is to create Oneness, is the Arts. Music is a powerful tool not just to elevate the individual but also to raise collective consciousness all over the world. I am hoping to explore further and produce examples of how the Arts shape(d) a community’s consciousness through my 2017 columns.

This much is a surety: The Arts imparts its creators with power, literally and by association. If more people appreciate your art, the more influential you are. The more your art is in tune with your audience, the more they feel they belong.

The end of 2016 has brought us face to face with a rather grim reflection of our fractured nation. Today, I find myself believing—utterly—that artists are singularly equipped with the power to tear down negative associations and infuse their communities with the rasa of Belonging, one audience at a time.

Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music, and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz and other genres.