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Sushmita Mazumdar's work, 'Something is Missing/Present - Grounding'

Albela Sajan Aayo Ri: Finding Myself in My Art

During the pandemic, my home changed as my family members worked, attended school and college from home. The museum where I had volunteered weekly for 20 years was closed. My work at my studio, Studio PAUSE, a community space for art and stories changed, and I found myself week after week, month after month, thinking, “Nobody is here. Still, there is nobody here!” The wall where anyone could show their art was blank. The writing sessions had moved online. Zoomceptions were few. 

It took a while before I noticed someone was here. It was me. As I started to explore my work in a new way, I watched what I would allow myself to create. 

When I finally felt okay playing music in the dead silent community center, I found the good old Hindi songs, playing on shuffle from my iTunes app, still spoke to me.

One day “Kafirana sa hai, Ishq hai ya Kya hai?” stopped me. It feels blasphemous, Is this love or what is it, the lyrics asked.

Sushmita Mazumdar painting at Studio PAUSE.
Sushmita Mazumdar painting at Studio PAUSE.

I had not seen the 2018 movie Kedarnath, but the song had moved me greatly. I pulled out four canvasses I had bought for a commission which I had discontinued. I had been asked to remove some elements related to George Floyd from that project and was given no explanation for it. So instead, I painted on it an intense deep green-blue. A month earlier the actor from Kedarnath, Sushant Singh Rajput, was believed to have killed himself. The shock had rippled through our community. He will never smile or sing again. I wrote the lyrics in my expressive calligraphic style, carving into the paint as well as applying paint to write in the Devanagari script and the Roman cursive. I wrote a new word, “Kafirana” written by new poets. I had lost touch with my native scripts while I lived my life in the US. They had gone quiet. Sushant, I found, also means quiet.

Another blue-green canvas sang, “Albela sajan aayo ri, Mora ati man sukh payo ri”. My charming beloved had come, My heart feels very happy now, it said.

I remembered the video from the 2015 movie Bajirao Mastani where Kashibai runs through the palace carrying a huge flag, thrilled at her beloved’s return home. I re-discovered my old favorite Devanagari letters which I had first fallen in love with when I studied calligraphy in art school in Bombay in the late 1980s. Who was this classical Hindi song speaking of? 

Hawa Hawa played, from that most special album from the 2011 movie Rockstar. I had made all the art for my first solo show in Oct 2012 listening to this album. But I had never made any songs visual. This song, meaning Wind, Wind, tells the story of a queen who couldn’t stay within the golden walls of her palace and needed to run bare feet into the wind, along with the wind. It clearly spoke of me—the old me. As I made a deep rani-pink, a red-infused variation on the pink color of queens, and wrote the lyrics on it, I saw myself now, sitting here every day. Who am I if I am not running? 

“Yeh Zameen chup hai, Aasmaan chup hai, Phir yeh dhadkan si, Charsu kya hai.” The earth is silent, the sky is silent, then what is this heartbeat, I hear all around me, asked an old favorite song, as I stood painting among my studio walls painted in the colors Baked Clay and Endless Sky. A question the queen Razia Sultan had asked herself in that 1983 movie – the poet imagining the state of the first Muslim woman to be emperor of the subcontinent of India in the 13th century spoke to me during the 2020 pandemic. What is it then?

I entered Sing to Me, Mr. Shuffle!, the story of a collaboration with an app and an algorithm for my first online presentation at Our Stories Virtual Festival hosted by Asian Arts and Culture Center, Towson University, Maryland. As I write this, I document a journey towards a new beginning, and a return to bring along the old me. 

Sushmita Mazumdar's mixed media artwork, ‘Albela Sajan/Charming Beloved’ on the AA&CC graphic
Sushmita Mazumdar’s mixed media artwork, ‘Albela Sajan/Charming Beloved’ on the AA&CC graphic.

I went back to yoga after years. I had first learned it when I attended the first standard in Bombay. I learned about chakras and found connections with stories I have collected from friends. I explored the bright colors in my paintings.

“Whose work is this,” an old friend asked when she finally left her home in July. “Mine,” I laughed. She looked at me in surprise. 

Then, poems! Bazaar, a recurring dream I had made into an artist’s book in 2012, was selected to be part of the Virginia Poet Laureate Luisa A. Igloria’s Poem-A-Day project in April 2021. It was also made into a poetry video by artist Mary Louise Marino who saw how it connected with her own experience.

I had finally applied for citizenship, and found a poem emerge on an emotional afternoon before the test. In Kanyadaan, Again, I think about the ceremony where a father gives away his daughter at a Hindu wedding. I beg my father—who had fought for the freedom of India and had given me away to my American husband when he came for our wedding—to give me away again, from one flag to another. 

“I hope he will he say: Go! Be a freedom fighter for yourself

in the country which fought the same imperialists

And vote! So its children can always be free 

and so yours can be assured that their country

is also their Motherland.” 

— Excerpt from Sushmita Mazumdar’s Poem ‘Kanyaadan Again’

Colors, languages, and scripts had exploded out of me—my heritage, a leap past the 21 years in the US and beyond! I put it all into my new website.

On June 8, I voted for the first time in 21 years. I will be heard. I went to vote with my husband and my son.

On June 10, I was at a poetry reading where I read aloud my first Hindi poem, Aaj Summer Camp Mein, American accent and all, accompanied by its English translation which was published earlier this year in Written in Arlington. It’s about a new staff member who was at my daughter’s camp and how my daughter loved her long black hair, her dark eyes, and had asked: Is Ms. Maheen like me? Is she Indian? 

This was all new for me. It had taken a global pandemic for a flood of the old me to emerge and merge with the now me, leading to a new me, hopefully moving toward a more complete me. 


Sushmita Mazumdar is a self-taught writer and book artist, writing stories from her childhood for her American children and making them into handmade storybooks. Encouraging everyone to share their stories of home, heritage, and migration she opened Studio Pause in 2013 mixing community voices into her own work, allowing cross-cultural collaborations and dialogues to inform her creations.


 

Mushkil Duniya Painted in Coffee

In June Ahmad Abumraighi messaged me asking if he can come to my community studio, Studio Pause, with his friend and filmmaker Anas Tolba. Anas was making a documentary on Ahmad as a Palestinian artist, whose work is about social justice and community.

I asked Ahmad, “Why the Studio?”

He replied “… it’s about being around honest company where I can be myself, without experiencing the feeling of having to defend myself or my beliefs. At Studio Pause I feel safe and creative when I’m with Sush and other community artists who care to bring love and light to everyone in the community.”

Ahmad with Filmmakers Anas and Mohammad

Anas would bring his assistant, Mohammad Saffouri, and Hanan would join them later. I agreed happily. I was going to have my first group of people at the Studio since lockdown. What better group than this?

I had first met Ahmad at Hanan Seid’s Mic-Less Night Series. Hanan, a local spoken word artist, activist and the Studio’s first artist-in-residence, had started her Mic-Less Night Series here in 2016 finding the space perfect for people who are intimidated by the mic to share their poetry and stories. Since then, Ahmad had had two shows here sharing his love for Arabic poetry and his mastery in calligraphy with the community, while he attended university as an international student.

Before they arrived that day I reminded them to wear masks. Susan Sterner, a PAUSEr who visited once a week, had brought in extra masks and hand sanitizer. She had figured out how we could safely work at the ends of the 6 ft long art tables. Ahmad and the crew arrived masked and with bags of goodies. I made coffee and set out the refreshments. Our last reception had been in Feb 2020, for Susan’s show, and this was the first four-month gap in seven years of the Studio. The AC was out, the windows were open, and a noisy bird sang from a tree.

The filming started with an interview. Ahmad asked what I had worked on during the pandemic. I showed him my calligraphic explorations in Hindi and Bengali. I told him how his art had inspired me to return to my languages and scripts reconnecting with them through my art. Then it was time for art-making. I introduced him to water-soluble graphite. “As I play music in my Studio,” I said, “a Hindi movie song might speak to me, and I make the lyrics into art.” 

He got an idea. “Why don’t you play your music and I’ll play mine!” he said. “You do your calligraphy and I’ll do mine!” 

The songs played and we wrote directly on the butcher paper taped to the table—Arabic and Devanagari. “What did you write?” I asked. 

“Take me to Palestine,” he read.

I texted a photo of it to my friend, Sughra Hussainy, a calligrapher from Afghanistan, living in Baltimore, MD. She created a calligraphic artwork and sent it to me. Take me to my dear Kabul, it read. I showed it to the men. 

I caught a few Arabic words from Ahmad’s songs. They were the Hindi/Urdu words duniya, mushkil. Ahmad painted with the coffee too. 

“What is that? Looks like mountains and valleys,” I observed, as the wet paper warped. 

“It’s the map of Palestine,” he laughed. Later, he started to dance.

The air was magical, yet, I was quietly panicking. What if someone caught COVID-19? Had I done everything right? I went and looked out of the window, tears rolling down my face. Was I being pessimistic as the friends chatted away, laughed and worked? I had missed people, even strangers. Every month, between an artist’s reception and Mic-Less Night I met 20-50 people here and it was always awesome. And here were these wonderful people and I was … what’s the word? 

They continued their shoot downstairs in the community center. I had worked alone during the lockdown designing and producing handmade copies of Hanan’s first full-length poetry book, Catalyst: A Collection of Poetry by Hanan Seid. Now again, I was sitting at my table, alone. But my heart was racing. I breathed deeply, folding the printed pages, reading snippets of Hanan’s powerful poems.

Hanan and her books.

Soon the group returned to the Studio along with Hanan. At the opening reception here five years ago we had 40 guests and now five made my heart race. But she was so excited to see the copies of her books and sign them. I noticed the red mask she wore over her hijab. I couldn’t see her smile let alone give her a hug. Who was I now? I could hardly recognize myself.

An excerpt from her poem Tsunami spoke to me: 

“Which character will they remember?
I’ve been them all
The good and the bad
Wonder if my soul is as claustrophobic as I am
If it’ll fit nice in the coffin
Then my eyes open
And the nightmare supposedly over
I gasp and wonder
Who will I be next
and will she be remembered?”

When they left, I helped the community center staff put the furniture back the way it was. They worried about what had been touched. I stared at where the woman sprayed the Lysol, and what she wiped. So much remained unsprayed and unwiped! I remained silent. I couldn’t recognize myself, a total stranger! But it would be fine, I told myself. We were all doing our best.


Sushmita Mazumdar is a self-taught writer and book artist, writing stories from her childhood for her American children and making them into handmade storybooks. Encouraging everyone to share their stories of home, heritage, and migration she opened Studio Pause in 2013 mixing community voices into her own work, allowing cross-cultural collaborations and dialogues to inform her creations.

Words to Art: What Are You Feeling?

As the recent lockdown hit, my community art space in Arlington, Virginia, Studio Pause, closed to the public. People asked me to take our weekly writing PAUSE sessions online, shared links for bookmaking videos from my website, and even quoted my Instagram posts on their social media. I did phone calls with worried children who had made art for me, their art teacher. I got emails from seniors asking what creative things I do to stay calm. At the studio, I had experienced people’s discomfort during the two federal shutdowns we had in Washington D.C. Then there was anger. Now there is panic.

In early April I got an email from Special Projects Curator for Arlington Cultural Affairs Cynthia Connolly asking for “a super-fast and fun art project.” I had previously worked with Connolly on Columbia Pike Recipes for You, a community book arts project, and Words to Art: Art on the ART Bus, where I collaborated with bus drivers. I created a new version of Words to Art asking the public to collaborate this time. Connolly decided to bring four other Arlington artists into the project. Words to Art Spring 2020: A Community Art Project by Sushmita Mazumdar & Arlington Arts, which would run for four weeks.

Every Monday, this online project invites the public to share one word expressing their feelings about the COVID-19 quarantine. Artists select a word from the submissions and create artworks inspired by them. The public follows their creative process through the weekend via social media as the artworks are shared. The finished works are posted at the Arlington Arts website and at my Studio Pause website. 

For Week One, I picked the word Non-Essential to work on. It was submitted by Rosendo Escareno. Describing my artwork I wrote, “I love the power conveyed by thick strokes of Chinese ink, so I used it to write the 2 Ns in ‘non’. As I wrote the word ‘non’ over and over with water-soluble crayons, I thought of how many of us were suddenly declared ‘non-essential.’ Yet in my home, I had decided that I would be the only one to go shopping for groceries. I had made myself essential! I even swapped some ‘non’ for ‘mom.’”

Chastened, submitted by Frank Higgins, was rendered by David Amoroso. Speaking to Arlington Magazine, Amoroso notes that since the pandemic, he’s had major paradigm shifts. “Now, everything and everybody feels a little like the enemy.” Art has always been his therapy, he says, bright colors and pop culture subjects. However, there is a distinct change in the look of the art he created for this project—they are black and white. “The words I have selected so far—chastened and broken—really speak to what’s going on inside me.”

Survival was submitted by Lloyd Wolfe and rendered by Maribeth Egan, a mixed media artist and arts educator. Her collage includes a visual bombardment of natural forces threatening to obscure the word. A cartoon hand in the background suggests a route to survival: wash your hands. She uses collage, ink jet, gouache, and embroidery floss on paper to create the desired effect. Maribeth firmly believes everyone should learn to value creativity, make art, and is happy to support that effort. In her art practice, she combines a variety of materials with paint, investigating what rankles or delights her at a given time.

Stuck was submitted by Leigh Bailey and rendered by MasPaz, who spends the majority of his time traveling, teaching and painting murals across the world. His digital illustration represents people who choose to not leave their homes in order to protect their family, yet do not have enough money to feed their children. In his home country of Colombia, those in need of help, hang a red flag outside of their homes. 

I used the artworks as visual prompts for my writing PAUSE sessions, where studio members craft short free-writes inspired by art. Kori Johnson was immediately drawn to Stuck. She wrote, “In Colombia, you hang a red flag outside your door to signal you need help. I wonder if that would work here. Would anyone hang a flag? Would anyone come to help? What red flags would we wave if we could get help without judgment? What flags do we ignore, even when they are right in front of our faces?”

An excerpt from studio member Mary Louise Marino who took a poetic approach: 

“… 

an unsafe outside 

and insecure inside

unable to stretch

and grounding our feet

in the foundation of our home

we become heavy lines 

stiff and stuck”

Lonely, submitted by Colleen Moore, was rendered by Kate Fleming, who has spent her isolation making oil paintings of toilet paper – a playful, yet poignant nod to one of COVID’s hottest commodities. In response to this, studio member Ruben Villalta wrote, “I would like to write about the picture of the toilet paper, to think about something happier than the disastrous COVID-19.” Villalta remembered attending an art talk in El Salvador by Antonio Cañas, who discussed his Warhol-style painting of Daria, the popular 90’s MTV cartoon character, with rolls of toilet paper behind her. It was a symbol of protest against the status quo of societal consumerism.

Enthusiasm grows. People loved the statements the artists were sharing, and also the photos of them working. I am excited to see this project help us express our emotions and feelings in different ways and make them visual. I am enjoying the public response and present a new question to explore—is the artist essential? 

Sushmita Mazumdar taught herself to be a writer and book artist, writing stories from her childhood, after a 15-year career in advertising in India and the US. Encouraging everyone to share their stories of home, heritage, and migration through art, she opened Studio Pause in 2013, mixing community voices into her own work, allowing cross-cultural collaborations and dialogues to inform her creations.