Halfway through “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation,” next to the Pentium chip and around the corner from DJ Rekha, is Ruee Gawarikar’s “The Goddess of Visas” (2013).
The accompanying text panel describes the painting as “a humorous take on the tedious and anxiety-ridden process of applying for a work visa [in which] the goddess holds a keyboard while benevolently showering her devotees with the ultimate blessing: the elusive H-1B visa … She leads her followers smoothly through the long process, influencing the minds of visa officers and showing dreams of a better life.”
Gawarikar’s own artist statement appends a subtitle, “Towards Greener Grass,” to the painting and describes the goddess as a “multi-tasker.” The painting is “lighthearted,” she says, but also offers a commentary on migration.
Writers are not always their own best readers; this I know after years of editing and being edited. It makes sense, then, that painters might not be their own best critics. In fact, “The Goddess of Visas” is far more interesting than the descriptions offered by its painter and curator Masum Momaya, who wrote the text panel, suggest.
The mixed media work depicts a thick-fingered, unsmiling goddess as she stands atop the head of an open-mouthed, balding man with sharp teeth and stricken eyes. The keyboard in one of her many outstretched hands is brandished as a weapon. There is nothing benevolent about it. Nothing particularly humorous or lighthearted, either, as the ground is littered with denied and voided visa applications.
The reds, blues, and whites of the painting invoke the American dream to which the text panel refers, but only by revealing its nightmarish cognates. The goddess’ hands are clawed. The clouds above are stormy. Embedded in this painting’s somber elaboration of visa dreams denied is artist Ruee Gawarikar’s own experience of moving to the United States from Pune in 2004 as a dependent spouse on an H-4 visa.
The only thing potentially worse than a visa denied, the painting seems to say, is a visa granted.
It is a provocative statement in an exhibit that primarily focuses on Indian American contributions to the United States. And it’s a fitting accompaniment to the ambivalent note struck by poet Meena Alexander’s “Bright Passage,” which was penned specifically for the exhibit and greets visitors upon entry:
“Grandmother’s sari …/ … scrap of khadi grandfather spun, … / Ancestors startled in sepia… / Who ask— / Why have you brought us here?”
The complete poem continues with images of swarming generations and rocking doorway, but it is also full of light, gold, dreamers, and songbirds, koils and finches. It aptly sets a polyphonic tone for an exhibit that is trying to speak in multiple voices—of celebration and correction, of witness and memorial, of triumph and expectation—but it also calls into question any easy equation of heritage and home.
In The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience (1996), Alexander wrote an imaginary dialogue between a kathakali dancer playing the part of Draupadi and herself, sitting in her room in Manhattan.
“So what brought you here?” Draupadi demands in half-English, half-Malayalam, meaning, why did you come to America?
“Here?” Alexander’s character, MA, responds. “Perhaps I came to remember my life…Perhaps I came to make it all up. Name things afresh…to live and write.”
Is there a way in which the words of Alexander’s “Bright Passage” might be read as a question to Gawarikar’s “Goddess of Visas?” Not literally, of course, as the artists involved never communicated while preparing their contributions. But as the works themselves bunk together at the Smithsonian between now and August 2015 when the exhibit goes on tour, as they glint wordlessly in the dark of the newly refurbished gallery in the National Museum of Natural History, with its marigold, mango, and magenta walls, perhaps they might have occasion to speak.
MA: Goddess, why have you brought us here?
MA: You know what I mean, America.
GV: I’m not sure. Perhaps you should be careful what you wish for.
A few weeks after seeing Gawarikar’s painting in Washington, D.C., where I’d gone for the opening of “Beyond Bollywood,” I went to visit her at her house in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, my 10-month-old in tow.
Ruee, it turns out, has an almost-two year old, and my Mrinalini was thrilled to be in the company of such a “big kid.” She watched her curiously while eating her whole grain Cheerios, contemplating the way this other little person somehow managed to walk without assistance. Afterward, they wordlessly engaged over xylophone and singing stuffed bunny, then a box of assorted bangles they were allowed to fling all over the carpeted floor of Ruee’s home studio.
Ruee’s other paintings, especially a series titled “Defense Mechanisms,” struck me as full of psychic turmoil and yet possibility. Flowers rain down even amidst chaotic swirls of neon arms, wide-open mouths, and bulging eyes.
Ruee and I are close in age but a generation-apart in immigrant terms. We talked about going back to India, she to stay with her parents, me to visit my grandparents. It’s far, Ruee said, and hard. She seemed impressed with me for going yearly to India when my own folks live in the United States. She talked about the stress of being on an H-4 visa and the joy of finally being allowed to sell her first painting. Her house smelled wonderfully of home cooking. Her daughter, I joked, would be an American girl, like me. I didn’t ask if she wanted to move back to India. The painting seemed to say it all.
But maybe, I thought later, the “greener grass” of Ruee’s subtitle didn’t refer to a mythological United States or an India free of work visa imperatives, but a world—any world—of professional and personal opportunity, a world that knows how to value its human resources and enables the flourishing of all classes, factions, and dreamers.
In Alexander’s words, “India, America: all these are names for worlds we live in.”
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.