As we enter the season of “Devi Paksha”, the spirit of Feminine Divine in the Fall, regaling at the cotton ball clouds in the clear blue sky, gentle morning breeze smelling of fresh dew, rustic reconnaissance in our agile senses, the vision of a city emerges very vividly in many minds connected to India: Calcutta (now called Kolkata), the city that took exquisiteness of the decadent to a whole different level! Everything is about the bygone out there.
Perhaps, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, Calcutta is a mix of many things, all at once. While the mangrove forests been submerging in the Bay, the foothills of the Himalayas merging with the rising mists for thousands of years, footprints of many people, their ethnicities, spirituality, aspirations, and accolades adorned the soil of the land. One such seeker was Job Charnock who settled the harness of British East India Company in the city some 365 years back. The community found a home away from home, absorbing it foot by foot, building the city brick by brick. In the words of contemporary historians, Calcutta was inspirational to London, ushering a century of opulence, immersion, and multiplexity in the United Kingdom. Needless to say, people from Calcutta always relish Europe in their ethos.
It was the most coveted gift of the season when the publisher of India Currents, Vandana, handed me this rustic book to review: Old Picture Postcards from the British Raj. Chronicle of real postcards collected and curated by Madan Gopal Mukhopadhyay, compiled over generations, capturing people and places from Calcutta and the rest of India during the Colonial era. My heart danced to the tune of sepia-tinted images from the city of my birth. The book depicts nooks and alleys of the city in photographic representation, documenting urban and rural edifices and lifestyles seamlessly. There’s a surprise element in the end.
“At the end is a special set of postcards, more than a century old, featuring photographs of Indian royalty by the renowned photographer, Carl Vandyke.”
The author was born in Calcutta before the Partition, graduated from the prestigious Calcutta Medical College after which he came to the US to study and pursue his career as a physician. An alumnus of Howard University and Yale University, Madan Gopal has had many distinguished achievements as a doctor, author, social luminary, and patron of arts and culture. This book is dedicated to his progenies, “Perhaps the images of this book will remind them of their roots in the future”.
I work, read, write, cook, watch movies, eat, sleep, carry on with my daily life. But deep inside, a restless voice keeps bothering me – What do I do with this life?Is this life just for material success? Earn money, own house-car-jewelry, marry and have kids, run after name, fame, career, social position? Then why do we feel sorrow? Why does a millionaire wallow in misery, a woman wrapped in diamonds silently weeps, a man successful in the worldly sense renounces everything to seek happiness? What is happiness? Is it something elusive, imaginary, unattainable?
Vivek, my computer engineer, comes the other day at my frantic call. He sets my computer right and announces, ‘Ma’am, I won’t be available for the next ten days.’
‘Why? What if there’s a problem again?’ I sound helpless.
‘But I’ll be out of town Ma’am. Won’t be reachable even on phone.’
‘But where are you going?’
‘For a Vipassana course.’
‘Vi-pasana? Whats that?’
Vivek quickly types an URL. Dhamma.org. ‘Everything is here. You can register for the course online.’
Vivek leaves. I browse through the pages. I gather that it’s not Vi-pasana but VIPASSANA, pronounced as VI-PASHYANA (Vi- a special way, Passana – to see), where PASSANA is derived from the Pali word PASSA which mean ‘seeing’. A special way to see? See what? I become curious. I decide to learn more about VIPASSANA.
Three years pass by. Life goes on as usual – I work, read, write, cook, watch movies, eat, sleep, carry on with my daily routine. And deep inside, the restless voice keeps bothering me: What do I do with this life?
Then suddenly one day I leave behind my work, family, friends, my books-theatres-films – and register myself for a 10 day Vipassana course. On reaching the center at Igatpuri, I’m pleasantly surprised to know that the entire 10-day stay is free! I look at the long queue and wonder how they manage to provide free boarding and lodging for so many meditation students. I would soon know that it is the grateful donation or dana of past students who benefitted from the course, that keeps this vast system running. When my turn comes, I dutifully hand over my mobile, cash and other-worldly possessions and set forth to live like a monk on humble alms (living on donation is alms, right?). The silent journey in quest of my SELF begins.
Those ten days were the most valuable experiences of my life. How busy we are without a moment to spend with our own self! Questions, doubts, worries, sorrows constantly crowd our mind but we keep avoiding them. We indulge in detailed research on Rinky’s husband’s character, endlessly debate on whether Mrs. Shah is older than Mr. Shah while remaining totally ignorant about our closest companion – our SELF. This course made me go through that tough task of facing myself, seeing my INNER SELF in its true light and accepting it as it is, with all the warts and moles and blemishes. I had read ‘Aatmaanam biddhi’ (Know Thyself); who knew I would learn to practice it someday! By and by, I learn to see reality in its true perspective and not as I want it to be. I learn to deal with the chaos around me. I get to know the two main causes of suffering – Craving and Aversion. On one hand is this chain of cravings – want this, want that, want more, still more; on the other hand is the sea of aversions – don’t want this, don’t want that, this is rubbish, that is disgusting. Caught between these two emotions, how i suffered in the past. Finally I find a rational, scientific tool to free myself from sufferings.
Vipassana appealed to me for three distinct reasons.
Firstly, there is no need to leave my faith and follow Buddhism or chant Buddhist mantras to practice Vipassana which Buddha discovered 2500 years ago. Buddha taught us ‘Dhamma’ (Law of Nature), not Buddhism which was created by his followers much later. In fact, Buddhism goes directly against his teachings because he always opposed any sort of division, especially organized religions and sects. Doesn’t Buddhism create a divide between Buddhists and Non Buddhists? Whereas ‘Dhamma’ or ‘Law of Nature’ applies to all living beings and can be universally practiced, even by a non-believer.
The second impressive thing about Vipassana is that it is a natural phenomenon that needs no complex physical effort. One has to just sit at rest and silently observe one’s own breath. Of course it’s not as easy as it sounds. Anybody with the slightest idea of meditation will know. That is why it is so important to stay secluded for ten days under the able guidance of teachers in order to learn this meditation technique.
The third and most important factor to me is that it does not support “blind faith”, rather encourages one to explore the teachings himself. So his faith or wisdom is not generated from something he has read (Gyanmaya panna) or from what he has heard from his parents or teachers (Shrutamaya panna) but based on his OWN experience (Bhavnamaya panna).
Currently, there are Vipassana centers in more than 100 countries including China, the United States, Europe, Japan, the Middle East and Thailand where Vipassana is taught without taking a single penny, maintaining the millennia-old non-commercial purity of the teaching. Jasmine, my fellow meditator at one of my courses, had done her first course in Washington DC and while on a research assignment in Delhi, had come for the second course to Igatpuri. Another meditator Magdalene from Austria had read a story about Vipassana and Igatpuri, checked them on the internet and seeing that they exist in real life, flew down to attend the course and seek answers.
Just as I had come to Vipassana with my restless quest: What do I do with this life? The deal was simple. All we had to risk were ten days of our life. We were free to leave the course if we didn’t like it, or reject it once back home. Fortunately, it worked for me and I was deeply influenced. And then? ‘He who hears His clarion call, rushes forth with boundless energy undaunted and fearless’ (যে শুনেছে কানে তাহার আহ্বানগীত ছুটেছে সে নির্ভীক পরাণে – a Tagore quote).
Today I see Life differently. I have a changed attitude, a new way of seeing the world. It is like wearing a pair of glasses. Everything was clouded before. I stumbled at every step, suffered from fear and lack of confidence, felt miserable and blamed others for my misery. After wearing the ‘glasses’, everything before me has become crystal clear – the road, the people, the pot-holes. Now I walk boldly, safely, confidently. Who says ‘happiness’ is elusive, imaginary, unattainable? We can find it here in this very life. We just need a pair of glasses. And then I bet we’ll keep singing – What a beautiful world!
Anjana Chattopadhyay is a freelance Translator, Journalist, and Social Worker. Runs her own NGO Metta Foundation. Has authored two books in Bengali. Member of Council of International Programs (CIPUSA), an international social workers’ organization. Loves to travel exploring new places, new people and new cultures. Presently residing in Kolkata.
She draws you in. Dominating the space inside you… her eyes half-closed, her manner very still.
Upon her forehead is a massive red Bindi that captures your attention. Her many hands jut out about her form, meshing with snaking vines, leaves and foliage.
She is cloaked in a primordial stillness – as she sits cross legged, in Padmasan.
Her mouth is unmoving, painted red. Yet, she speaks to you of things she holds within herself; the many-layered, many-nuanced feminine energy. Her voice is the embodiment of the Positive, of all possibilities, of the Divine.
Her names are many… Devi Ma… Kamala… Durga…Bhavya…
She is ever-changing in all ways but remains the same in an elemental sense – as “Shakti” – Strength.
From her origins in the musty air of West Bengal’s Bishnupur, she has travelled across the seas to be amongst us.
And the man who has led her to us is Basuki Das Gupta.
She has been depicted several times over, in as many styles. Basuki’s hands have given life to his personal vision of Her. She has been honed, layer upon layer, from many different materials – wrought by various tools, shaped by hands that speak their own language.
A language of inspiration, of childhood memories enriched by temples fashioned with mud and clay, walls decorated with relief sculptures – replete with the treasures of myth and lore.
Children form strong bonds and memories by internalizing through “touch'” – for something to be “real” to them, they have to touch and explore it. This is why children’s museums have ‘Tactile play’ as part of their exhibits. And this is also why children’s toy design is a huge industry!
Basuki’s childhood explorations in the famed terra-cotta temples of Bishnupur is the stuff of storybooks. He is open and candid about his experiences, refreshingly child-like in his expression. To hear him relate tales of his life in the village, is like a trip down memory lane to the “Malgudi Days” of the 1980s. He speaks of roaming the halls of the temples, listening to music, dancing to its tunes, with an effervescent group of friends and family – a full, rich, sensory experience.
“Nature was our playground,” he says with a laugh. Life, for the young Basuki was made all the more real, because he was able to imbibe, touch and experience all of it up close. And of course it made an impact on a fertile mind like his. His greatest takeaway were the terra-cotta reliefs adorning the temple walls, begging to be caressed, to be committed to memory. And commit them he did. It shows in every textured layer of his work.
Despite the sensory bounty of his childhood days, Basuki did not harbor aspirations to become an artist. There was no conscious thought that led him down that path. The lively cultural elements around him inspired his creativity and he felt intuitively drawn to music and painting. A visit to the famed Shantiniketan – Viswa Bharati University in Kolkata, further solidified his interest. He remembers his family’s unenthusiastic reaction to his decision to study Fine Arts at the distinguished institution, founded by the legendary Rabindranath Tagore. His father, a school teacher; was anxious that he pick a career path that was more financially promising! But in the end, Basuki prevailed.
Shantiniketan and Beyond:
The informal atmosphere at Shantiniketan greatly aided creativity of all sorts. To a small town boy, this translated into free form exploration, which he enjoyed and thrived in. He felt truly at home there. “I learned to listen to my heart beat,” he states. Drawing inspiration from the work of great stalwarts like K.V Subramaniam, and Ramkinkar Baij, Basuki honed his skills and completed his Bachelors degree in Fine Arts in 1992. The next challenge came when he decided to pursue his Masters degree, in Mural Arts. He had to learn to separate his skill from true expression – and find his unique style, his artistic vocabulary. To quote the artist, “Where does Basuki live inside my art? I had to find the answer.” It was a slow process of self discovery, with its usual drama of ups and downs. Every little bit added value to his journey, and he completed his Masters program in 1999.
Right out of Shantiniketan, Basuki sought employment as a teacher to help continue his own work. Channeling his love for music by composing songs for street theatrical performances, added another layer of exploration. But the bustling metropolis that was Kolkata, stifled him.
When a teaching opportunity in Tumkur (Karnataka) came his way, he took it. This move would be the turning point in both his artistic and teaching journeys.
“I can see the sky here!” he exclaimed. This feeling of space took him deeper, helping him strive for broader artistic avenues in his work.
Being a teacher also taught him more about how to view the world and the possibilities that abound. Basuki has been a visiting faculty member at the National Institute of Design (NID), Gandhinagar (Gujarat) since 2010. He teaches a Masters course in Composition, using a hands-on, experiential method of exploration. His students come from various academic backgrounds – engineering, architecture as well as fine arts.
He prefers to teach using integrated, non-traditional methods and believes that the experience is richer when you learn in this manner. “Leaving yourself open to new experiences is the most important part of teaching,” he says.
The apple did not fall far from the tree after all – with the son taking on the role of his father!
“For me, Art is oxygen!” Basuki states, without any pretensions. If he does not create, he ceases to exist. He is simply matter-of-fact about this reality.
He maintains that there is no need to isolate yourself from life in order to create artwork of consequence. Creativity needs to happen in the midst of life with all its dramas.
“Art is a great way to release negative energy,” states Basuki.
Drawing inspiration from everything around him, he “constructs” his mixed media paintings using paper, hardboard, and acrylic paints. To watch his creative process is a little like peeking into the inner recesses of our own selves. Each step needs its requisite time, patience and structuring – to formulate and “gestate” – as with a child within a womb; taking shape gradually under his hands. He cuts shapes, gluing, painting over, and arranging them around his central sketch. Sometimes the idea takes hold in his imagination and he works to translate it into physical form directly. But the starting point is always a blank canvas.
Many artists find the idea of a blank canvas intimidating. I asked Basuki how he views it. “It is like a balanced note – playing continuously,” he smiles. “All you have to do is touch your brush to its resonating surface. It starts a vibration. Then the next step is to add another element or line to balance that vibration. And on it goes!”
For Basuki, the music of colors is just as important as the hues they speak with. His work pops with bold, vibrant pigments, enriching and enhancing them to create masterful textural triumphs!
Basuki relates to textures with an intrinsic emotion that goes beyond just the academic ideals of Art. Every piece he creates has a tactile quality to it.
The ‘Devi’ element, is a central theme of Basuki’s work. He very rarely portrays male figures, and when he does, it is usually paired with a female form.
For Basuki, ‘Devi‘ is a personification of his mother. Through his various portrayals of her, he pays homage to his mother’s influence in his life and work.
He visualizes his mother as a woman of great energy and zeal for life – picturing her with “many hands” – because she managed to do so much all at once.
She appears in his work frequently; sombre at times, vivid and victorious at others; but always dominating. A larger than life presence – holding the viewer captive with her gaze.
A powerful portrayal of ‘Shakti’ – Strength.
Career & Artistic Influences:
With his move to Tumkur, Basuki taught at a school, while creating his art on the side. His wife Madhumita joined him, and the birth of their daughter Aronya added another element to their lives. The responsibility of a child goaded Basuki to show his work around in the art galleries in Bengaluru. In his practical manner, Basuki philosophises that insecurity gave rise to opportunity!
A couple of failed exhibitions followed. Then a chance meeting at an art opening with senior artist, S.G. Vasudev, helped turn the tide quite literally. Seeing the potential in his work, the stalwart graciously provided introductions to local galleries. He was a source of great moral support, a fact that Basuki is forever grateful for. Kynkyny Art Gallery was the first to represent Basuki. And it was the beginning of his artistic ascent, to become one of the leading contemporary Indian artists of our time. His work is now represented by several well known galleries in India.
In his personal life, Basuki credits his wife as his partner in the truest sense. It takes courage to share your life with a creative sort, offer support and be a steady presence through their journey. Madhumita is his pillar of strength, giving him a sense of reality and a constant support. His daughter, Aronya, has chosen to explore her creativity through classical dance – a source of great pride for her father.
Another source of pride for this talented artist, is his upcoming trip to the S.F Bay Area. Sonia Patwardhan‘s venture Laasya Art, is helping promote Basuki’s work. In his honest, engaging manner he confesses that it fills him with equal parts excitement and anxiety, since it is his first trip to the United States! As for us, the viewers, it offers a rare artistic treat.
It is our chance to view the Symphony of Textures; charting the journey of a child – who became a man – but always remained an artist at heart.
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.