Tag Archives: Buddhist

The Wind In My Face: Raj Shahani

What happens when you take a businessman with a keen interest in photography and put him in an artist’s studio? Raj Shahani’s career and creative force is proof that when you live life with a passion, creativity unfurls and takes you soaring upon its wings.

The New York based businessman with a successful career in the finance industry had always nurtured a creative side. Born in Mumbai, to Sindhi parents who held education and stability in high esteem, Raj was raised with a firm belief that a career must be a means to financial security. His early attempts at art were considered a distraction from his studies. He does not remember being exposed to much art, except for one instance when he saw the famed sculptor Auguste Rodin’s work on display. This was a moment he took with him as his life coursed through various career paths onwards to New York. 

Having made a decision to retire upon turning 50, he decided to pursue all the things that inspired him creatively. Photography had remained with him throughout his career mostly as a keen hobby. Now free to explore other avenues, he took a sculpting workshop at the Art Students League in New York. And that was the beginning of a new love affair. This new found passion culminated in his first solo exhibit at the Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai in November 2019, featuring dancers captured in graceful motion through the medium of clay, bronze and fiberglass. He has also recently unveiled a site-specific, contemporary installation titled ‘Jayanti’ in Mcleodgunj, a small village outside Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh – home to His Holiness the Dalai Lama

India Currents caught up with Raj Shahani in Mumbai as he worked on several private commissions. 

IC:    We live in a world where specialization in a particular field of study carries weight – status – respect – identity.  This begs the question – why & how did you choose to leave behind your successful career and change lanes so to speak? 

R.S:   My parents migrated from Pakistan and went through a lot as they made their life in India. So fiscal responsibility and being able to support your family with what you earned means everything to them. As a boy I loved to paint and draw. But since Art was not considered a viable option, my parents and my school discouraged me from my attempts to pursue it. I am a parent now, and I understand where they were coming from!

I ended up majoring in Chemistry and then went on to other things. More and more I was left with a feeling that I wanted to retire at the age of 50. But after that what? All I knew was that I wanted to do something which was not dictated by others. I had never envisioned making art, and only pursued photography as a hobby. Until I stumbled upon sculpting. It became an obsession!

IC:   Did you see yourself working towards a goal while you were exploring sculpting?

R.S:  There was no plan. I just lost myself in the studios sculpting for hours every day! The human form came easily to me, maybe because I have taken so many pictures of people. The form is ingrained in my head and I could translate it into clay. But the results were only for me. I did not intend to show it publicly. Friends urged me to show my work and I remember thinking “what a crazy idea”

IC:   I ask this question of all artists. How difficult was the idea of monetizing your work?

R.S:   I haven’t accepted it as yet! While curating my work at the Jehangir Art Gallery, I wanted to keep all of it – could not let go! Even though I understand money and finance, it is very different when it comes to putting a dollar value to what I create. I cannot believe the response to my work!  This is still something I am learning to deal with.

IC:   Your show at Jehangir Art Gallery titled ‘Caesura/Continuum’ is a celebratory series of the human form captured in the course of executing ballet movements. The work is crisp, highly detailed, and has a wonderful, lyrical tension in some of the pieces. Tell us about your journey with this series.R.S:   I don’t see my sculptures ‘ballet dancers’ – I know that the dance form is ballet, but I have tried to go beyond it. Forms and people are very important. It is more about the emotion, the story behind that moment. The captured moment is just part of that overall story. In my head, the shapes have feelings. The movement, the tension, the emotion on their faces tell a lot more than the dance form itself. Ballet is the medium used to tell that story! It is a very spiritual experience although not in a godly sense. It is meant to transport you into that story – into that world, as a viewer.

IC:   How much of your work is colored by that exhibition of Rodin’s work you attended as a boy?

R.S:   As a kid growing up in Mumbai, we didn’t have much exposure to art or sculpture. At that time I remember going to an exhibition featuring Rodin’s work. I had never seen work on that scale in my life! So it made a definite impact. Having never had formal art training, that first exposure stayed with me. 

IC:   Tell us about your recent work, ‘Jayanti’, the 17 foot site-specific permanent installation situated Mcleodganj, Himachal Pradesh. Both the sculpture and the location – a place famed for its Buddhist spirituality – are intriguing.

R.S:  I was at the Hyatt Regency Resort in Dharamshala talking to the architects because they were interested in showcasing a series of photographs I had taken of Buddhist monks. The beauty of the locale inspired me to visualize ‘Jayanti’ – which is not a creation, but an energy. It has always existed in that place. I just let my inspiration reflect that energy, giving back and enhancing what was already present. It is like holding a mirror to what exists.

IC:   Your use of the word ‘mirror’ pretty much says it all! ‘Jayanti’ is highly reflective in the choice of materials you have used. It seems almost otherworldly, somehow placed in that area amidst the lushness of nature. How do you go from sculpting the human body in its lyrical and exquisite complexity to creating something like ‘Jayanti’? 

R.S:  Like I said before, ‘Jayanti’ has always existed as Energy in that place. She is the monolithic, Mother Goddess of Dharamshala who has been worshipped for all time. Jayanti is in the trees, the flowers, the beauty of the place itself. The sculpture is made of mirror-polished steel. It is multi-faceted, like a precious gem. You are meant to drive or walk around the installation. The form reflects different things as you drive around it, including the viewers themselves. So for me, it is more of a feeling, an experience. And a conceptual homage to Dharamshala, home to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. 

It also carries a Sanskrit shloka inscribed on its reflective facets – a tribute to the Goddess Jayanti. 

IC:  What next? Which aspect of life & creativity do you intend to explore?

R.S:  I am currently working on commissions and enjoying that process. Inspiration comes from everyday things that make me happy. I don’t have the constraints of being dictated to by the world around me, which is a blessing! So, for now, I just want to create. There is a hunger within me which lets me vent out my creativity in new and exciting ways. 

It is a little like jumping off a bridge and feeling the wind in my face… while knowing that I will hit the water eventually! In the meantime, it is all about the present moment! All about the NOW! And about experiencing the wind in my face! 

The installation ‘Jayanti’ is part of Hyatt Regency, Mcleodgunj’s permanent collection, paying tribute and homage to the ethos that is part of its fame.

India Currents wishes Raj Shahani many more travels along uncharted paths, drinking from the well of creativity.

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. Her new avatar requires creative juggling with the pen and the brush.

An Unusual Whatsapp Rendezvous

Last night while scrolling through my WhatsApp messages, a new message popped up. The number looked familiar and on closer examination I remembered that it was my old phone number from almost 15 years ago. I looked at it frantically. How was this possible?

In utter disbelief, I started typing.
ME: Who is this? Do I know you?

SHE: Yes, you do. You have been talking to me in your head for so long that I decided to show up.

ME: I do talk a lot in my head – but with myself. Not with you.

SHE: But I am you. Your younger self.

ME: My younger self?

SHE: Don’t sound so flabbergasted.

ME: Obviously I am. What are you doing here?

SHE: I’m here just to see how things have been with you.

ME: Not too bad. I’m still chewing on the stuff you served me.

SHE There you go!! I have been receiving a lot of flak from you for quite some time. I’ve had enough. I want to put an end to this once and for all.

ME: Alright, busted. I do blame you for everything that has gone  wrong in my life, but who else is there to blame? At least I am not blaming other people or circumstances like other  people do.

SHE: People who blame others are losers and people who blame themselves are victims. In either case they sulk in self-pity. Why does there have to be any blame at all? Why not take responsibility for your actions?

ME: That does make sense. I always wished that if I ever get to meet my younger self, I would give her a piece of my mind. Here is my friendly advice to you:

“Don’t take life seriously. Don’t kill yourself for your goals. You can’t have a perfect score in everything. Be flexible. When life does not seem to go according to plan, be open to change. Life’s plans might turn out better than yours. If things are not favorable, wait for them to change as nothing lasts forever. Have some confidence in your own ability to withstand the storm. Give yourself credit when you deserve it. Project confidence. If it does not come  from within, fake it till you make it. Make friends, but don’t lean on them far too much. Share not just your joys but your sorrows too. Depend only on you for your happiness but include others in your journey to share it. Laugh more (crooked teeth don’t matter). When confused, follow your gut. Your instincts are there for a reason. It’s alright if you are not successful in your venture. Success is defined by others, but contentment is defined by you. Every successful person is not content, but every content person has transcended success. Immerse yourself completely in this life without fear of getting wet. Life will leave its mark, but those marks are the living proof of a life well lived.”

SHE: Hold on. Before you go any further, you seem to be finally catching up with emotionally intelligent peers. Which self-help books are you reading? Good job memorizing them. And to sum up your advice that amounts to “Follow your heart,” sorry, but I find that overrated and unrealistic. You seem to sound as if I was sleepwalking all along

ME: This is not a self-help book talking, this is my experience talking.

SHE: And from where did this experience come from?

ME: Life, of course.

SHE: Exactly my point. Let me complete it now. That experience came from the mistakes that I did in that life. Choices that I made, that you now think were wrong. If it was not for those unwise choices, you wouldn’t have learned these life lessons you were preaching just now. The wisdom that is a  by-product of those wrong choices cannot be used to undo those choices. You cannot reverse engineer in this case. These problems only tested your grit and helped you grow. Now use this wisdom for your current problems to build a better future. You will obviously see things more clearly with a bigger flashlight. But you still need to change the direction of that flashlight. Instead of using it backwards, please use it forward. You were not there to guide me. You were not even born. In-fact my problems, my losses, my wins, my successes and failures gave birth to you. You came out of me.

ME: So, you are my mom!!

SHE: Sort of, but not literally. Like a mom, I always wish for your happiness, but unlike her, I can’t be around.

ME: What does that mean?
SHE: Get rid of me and let me rest in peace.
ME: How?

SHE: I am the unfinished business that you need to take care of. Instead of blaming me, give me some credit for making you who you are. You are an ardent fan of Buddhist Philosophy. I am sure you understand the law of impermanence. Don’t let me linger permanently in your subconscious mind. Everything has an expiration date. Why are you holding on to me? Why this attachment? Let go of me. You can’t live with this divided identity. Calm and peace cannot co-exist with fear and insecurities.
ME: But I need someone to talk to. If I let go of you, who will listen to my rants?
SHE: Your friends and family. Invest in your relationships. I don’t exist in real life. You are keeping me alive. My job is done.

ME: Alright. I can let go of you only if you answer one question. Since you are here, tell me how I should deal with difficult people in my life.  

`SHE: Be difficult for them. Sorry, you know I am impulsive. If you are looking for wiser advice, listen to the wise! . Go chat with your older self!

ME: Thank you. That really helps (sarcastically!)

And she disappeared. I kept typing but a reply wouldn’t come. I guess she was right. Her job was done. I closed my eyes. Confusion gives way to clarity, insecurity  gives way to strength, agitation gives way to calm and peace.

Every now and then we have to die to be born again as a new person with a renewed sense of self. We are in a constant state of flux. Life keeps happening and we keep changing. We wish that we could have done some things differently and life would have been magically better. But the truth is nothing comes for free, not even wisdom. By making us go through difficulties, life is charging its price and making us wiser. Probably life’s best gifts are not wrapped in pretty gifts. When you look back, don’t just look at one aspect of your past. Connect the dots to see the complete picture. Everything will start making sense. My younger self was trying to follow her head and I am trying to follow my heart. In this battle of head and heart, no one wins. I am logical and rational when I use my head and I am intuitive and kind when I use my heart but I am wise when I know when to use what. So, I choose the middle way. As explained in Buddhism, the more we delve into the middle way the more deeply we come to rest between the play of opposites. And the conflict ended.