Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A GLIMPSE OF THE DIVINE



SUSHMA JOSHI
ECS Magazine, 2009

My mother is a big gardener. Ever since I can remember, she has snipped off tiny branches of this plant or that from other people's gardens, from the ditches of abandoned roads, from the corners of dusty junkyards, bringing that life back home to replant in her garden. Flowers, she's decided, belong to everybody. This means that she will happily sweep up an entire basketful of yellow forsythia for devotees who ask for it in the morning, and uproot a flowering plant if a visitor asks for it. She will hand the plant over since she believes flowers and plants must be shared. This sometimes causes us annoyance since we'd rather not hand over our fern to some stranger who takes a fancy to it—after all, our friend from Australia hand-carried from the forests of Nimbun, and perhaps it would be nice if our mother asked permission before uprooting it. But all of this seems not to matter to our mother, who, like birds or bees, is inexhaustible in her energy in both disseminating and gathering plants. She can't keep track of all the beautiful colors of impatiens and crysanthemums and marigolds she once had. All of them are lost or die out or are stolen by gardeners. Gardeners have become her special nemesis—every once in a while one of us hires a gardener who manages to destroy an ancient creeper, or who snips off the leaves in odd ways, or who steals precious plants for some secret nursery where they work part-time. I think at times she remembers things from her dreams and transplants them into a dream garden that never was. She's recently taken to putting big blocks of ice on our plants ("There's no water, the plants will die!"). The plants seem to appreciate this ice treatment for they bloom blissfully even in the dryness of a Kathmandu winter.



Through my mother, I came to appreciate the smell of earth after a light rain, the beauty of weeds, and the flow of life which follows the wilderness. Around autumn, I noticed that my nephew had taken to accompanying my mother on her garden activities in the early morning—picking out bugs, testing the ground for earthworms, marveling at a fresh upsurge of mint, discovering that a bulb thought dead was now sprouting new shoots. In our little corner of Kathmandu, my mother maintains, stubbornly, her little patch of wildness—tangled weeds, bamboo, unidentified herbiage. She refuses to tame her garden. No neat rows of potted plants for her, no cultivated roses, no scrupulous uprooting of weeds. Big civil wars erupt inside our family when a tree is to be trimmed—half the family (including me) opposing any destruction of greenery even if the jackaranda trees threaten to cover up the house with their canopies, the other half longing for easily managed urban space devoid of messy green leaves, untidy trees, rotting organic matter.



The miracle of nature, which we always forget in the gloom of winter, is renewal. Dusty winter trees give way to fresh spring leaves which cover the blue sky with new color. Nature inspires art not just by giving us a chance to copy what already exists—but also by encouraging us to work with what its given us and to rework it in new ways. In the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, I saw a still-life drawn by one of the most well-known still-life artists, a French woman from the fifteenth or sixteenth century. The baskets of fruit were luscious, and the strawberries so ripe and juicy you felt you could pick them out of the canvas, five hundred years after they were painted, and pop them inside your mouth. Juan Sánchez Cotán, a Spanish artist and Carthusian monk, painted still-life paintings that are revered in Spain. His still-life in the Prado Museum, which was a break from the gigantic canvases that paid homage to religious devotion, is simple—it shows a vegetable, perhaps a radish, cut at the top and standing upright, with lemons, carrots and some dead game birds. Words cannot really describe the quality of light that lights up this canvas—it is as if the light of heaven were falling down upon it, making the life of the everyday come to life, showing us how the simplicity of daily life can be a spiritual vision.

After touring the Prado Museum in Madrid and staring very hard at Zurbaran's other masterpiece—a simple, rectangular canvas which depicts four pots, I went to sleep the next day and woke up the next morning with a vision. I woke up with a vivid feeling that I had just glimpsed the transcendent, something not of this world. In Sanskrit this is called darshan, the vision of the divine. For me, the darshan was of the light of heaven falling on four small and ordinary pots found in a kitchen during Zurbaran's time. For a few seconds upon awakening, I felt a profound peace and happiness.

Everybody with whom I shared this, of course, thought I was being extremely amusing. People go all the way to Nepal to have a spiritual experience and you had yours in the Prado Museum, my friend Maria said, laughing. I still remember Graham, a college friend, telling me how he'd climbed a mountain in Nepal, met up with a sadhu, had a conversation, and had a profound religious experience. I sense that cultural dislocation in another country where they can't speak the language, as well as alienation and silence that comes over people when they cannot answer back, puts them in a space where their perceptions and senses are strangely heightened. Phenomena is experienced with special clarity during those moments. Hence the religious awakenings Europeans and Americans experience in Nepal and India, when they are submerged in religious practices but are unable to clearly articulate their feelings. I had walked for six hours through the Prado Museum, seeing manifestation of religious devotions from one century to the next, one country to the next, and all that religious fervor amalgamated for me into one rectangular piece of canvas depicting the simplicity of daily life. No wonder then that Zurbaran's pots, and his still-lives of pots and lemons continue to light up people's conciousness about what God really is.


Art, nature, the spiritual experience: all of these are integrally tied, and inspire each other. For me, waking up each morning and walking to the garden is an experience that brings together all three—not only am I surrounded by the greenery of nature, but also the hand of God which has shaped it into art. My nephew comes to sit on my lap as I sip my tea. Look, Babu, do you see that bird? I say, pointing to a small black and white bird that is pecking away at an avocado in the ground. Where, where? He asks. There, I point again, but he can't really see the bird. He runs up, and the bird flies away. He comes back and sits with me again. We giggle at the dog, who has laid down at our feet and is making funny noises as he scratches his ear fussily. Then we sit in silence and watch the garden. Both of us are aware that there is a special magic to the morning which cannot be explained. This wordlessness is what captures the divinity of everyday life—the tea, the dog, the child, the morning. This, then is the art of God—his hand visible in the colors of greenery, the browns of the earth, the blue of early morning. His canvas is vast. And we artists, humble humans, must try to capture a small keyhole glimpse of that infinity as best as we can.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Narratives on Art and Nature


H.E Finn Thilsted, Ambassador of Denmark inaugurated a reading on Narratives on Art and Nature, at 4:00 pm in Gallery 32 @ Dent Inn, Heritage Plaza, Kamaladi.

Narratives on Art and Nature
is a compilation of short articles by four writers based in Nepal writing on the themes of art and nature. During the event Sushma Joshi, Rabi Thapa and Pranab Man Singh read pieces they wrote for the compilation.

Narratives on Art and Nature
was published by Quixote’s Cove and the reading was organized by Gallery 32 and Quixote’s Cove.

The readings started with a short reflection by H.E. Finn Thilsted on the art event, Trees: Artifacts of Nature, organized by Quixote’s Cove on 3rd March 2009 at the GTZ Office gardens in Sanepa. Narratives on Art and Nature is an attempt to establish a unique Nepali narrative for art and nature. It was published and launched during the art event, Trees: Artifacts of Nature. The exhibition, Trees: Artifacts of Nature, runs at Gallery 32 till 30th March 2009.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Kathmandu Post review: The End of the World


Longing and loss
Sophia Furber
Hunger, both literal and metaphorical, is the driving theme behind Sushma Joshi's The End of the World. A diverse cast of characters, ranging from a policeman driven to stealing vegetables to stave off his hunger to a young worker returning to his famine-stricken village, grapple with their desires, resentments and everyday sufferings in this engaging collection of eight short stories.
Loss and longing are dealt with against a variety of social backdrops; a rural village stewing in a pre-monsoon torpor, the living quarters of small-town police station, an uptight upper-caste Kathmandu household, the living room of a wealthy Allahabad family during the Second World War. Joshi's stories plaintively ask the question of whether the hunger of the human heart can ever be satisfied.

The first story, Cheese, stands out as the most well crafted of the collection. A young boy, Gopi, sent to Kathmandu to work for his wealthy relatives as a household help, is denied the chance to taste cheese brought back by the family's eldest son on his return from Switzerland. Gopi vows that one day he too will taste this alien and glamorous foodstuff for himself, an obsession which remains with him long into adulthood. Joshi captures the mixture of awe, curiosity and envy that a returnee from foreign lands evokes in her young protagonist, and almost sacred quality with which foreign goods, right down to the tin-foil wrappers of Swiss chocolate, are imbued by members of the family. Cheese -- which Gopi hears as the Nepali word chij, meaning 'thing' -- becomes the focus of inexplicable longings, and is elevated to almost mythical status; "the humble thing-i-ness of the word had suddenly travelled to the exotic underworld of the senses and came up packaged in silver foil and cardboard, smelling of timezones and jetlag... the word suddenly had status."

The kind of simple literalism of the cheese/chij confusion is a recurring motif in the collection, as the characters grasp for solutions to their problems or means to satisfy their desires in a confusing world. In the final story, The Blockade, a young man takes a detour on his way back home from India to track down Ram Bahadur Bomjom who has learnt to survive without food or water, so that he can discover the famous 'Buddha boy's' secret and help the inhabitants of his native village to survive a famine. In the story The End of the World, Kathmandu is sent into a frenzy by a sadhu's predictions that the end of the world is near -- and a man from a hard-up family decides that the natural reaction to the coming of the apocalypse is to blow the household budget on ingredients for a lavish final meal, to his wife's dismay. The sacred and mundane sit very close together throughout this collection of stories.

Nepal's turbulent politics of recent years are never far from Joshi's mind in this collection. The spectre of political violence hangs over a sleepy afternoon at the village tea shop in Waiting for the Rain, in which a taxi driver comes to while away a day with his relatives discussing forthcoming elections, and wonders why his old friend Harka has become so burdened with grief. Betrayal tells the story of a friendship forged between two young men during years of migrant labour in India which is put to the test when the pair gets involved with the Maoist insurgency on their return home. Throughout her collection of stories, Joshi views political turmoil through the prism of the sufferings, desires and foibles of individuals, while the specifics of political parties, the state and the insurgency ultimately merge into the background. Betrayal goes as far as to give us a narrator whose decision to break with the Maoists and turn back to capitalism boils down to poor rice rations (“I was just getting really tired of the old useniko rice. You know what I mean? After fifteen years of eating good rice in Mumbai you don't want to go back and be eating some stinking shit stolen from an army barracks”). While Joshi's focus on the individual hungers and desires amid the conflict is successful throughout much of the collection, there are a few moments at which her attempts to marry political narratives with personal ones are less convincing, such as the first-person descriptions of life with the insurgents in Betrayal.

What makes The End of the World stand out as a collection of short stories is Joshi's masterful and elegant use of language. This volume is packed with delightfully inventive turns of phrase -- a personal favourite is the ironic discussion of the virtues of Switzerland compared to Nepal in Cheese ("That land of mountains, that mirror image of peaks, but so much more Westernised, so much more modern than Nepal's own mythologically burdened ones")

The End of the World is a confident debut collection for Joshi, in which the deceptively simple exterior of her prose peels away to reveal multiple layers of investigation into human longing and emptiness.
Posted on: 2009-03-07 20:48:48 (Server Time)