My time in India is winding down. Tonight I head out to Ooty, a beautiful (and fantastically named) hill station near Tamil Nadu’s border with Kerala. I’ll spend a day there and then one in Kochi, Kerala. Then back to Chennai. I leave Wednesday night!
This trip began with a fascination with the bronze icons of medieval South India. As a painter (or drawer, or whatnot), my interest in sculpture was one that I couldn’t quite explain.
Literature on the bronzes never strays far from descriptors like “sensuous,” “sinuous,” “graceful,” and “delicate.” These terms are perfectly suited to the Chola bronzes, but perhaps the reason that they deserve mention is because they are so rarely found in sculpture. These are the qualities of virtuoso painting, executed with a delicate brush by a careful hand, more often than they are the result of strenuous casting and chiseling.
Somehow, in all of my travels to temples and palaces and forts and museums, I have felt constantly pulled back in the direction of painting. This may be owing to personal disposition more than anything. A few years ago, I remember my professor Steve confiding to me that “painters tend to be pretty private people,” and breathing a sigh of relief to have found my niche.
As far as art experiences go, visiting a monument (especially an Indian monument) is anything but private. It means being surrounded by massive crowds and aggressive souvenir-hawkers lurking around every corner. It is, however, an experience that I’ve felt privileged to participate in—for the most part, the Indian “tourists” that I share these sites with are religious pilgrims rather than art enthusiasts. By definition, temple-going is a social activity, and fundamentally different from time spent in the quiet galleries of a museum.
A week or so ago, I visited the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad. It was one of many dusty Indian museums I’ve been too—overflowing with unlabelled stone relics, odd exhibitions of Western art collected by one maharaja or another, and often hilariously translated wall text. But thankfully, the Salar Jung Museum had a fantastic collection of miniature paintings, and I spent an hour looking at them while it rained outside.
I was so grateful to re-encounter the intimate little worlds that unfold in Indian miniature paintings. These paintings sparkle like gems on the museum wall—and I think it is to their advantage that they accommodate only one attentive viewer at a time, owing to their size. The intimacy of each painting’s content is echoed by the physical intimacy required to view them.
The fidelity of these paintings to private worlds and pastimes made me think of two texts that I’d recently reread at the same time, both of which I think are superbly instructive when it comes to being an “artist” of any genre, and being truthful to personal experience:
Henry David Thoreau, from “Economy”:
“In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me.”
and from David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech, “This Is Water”:
“Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.
Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being “well-adjusted”, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.”
And so, returning soon to the United States after 5 months spent immersed in Indian temple ritual, folk dance and music performances, and visits to archaeological sites, I am leaving India with a serious eagerness to return to the painting studio.
A sculpture will always be a “thing,” with an insistent “thingness” or physical presence in the world. But paintings have a certain magic to them, in that (while being physical objects) they create alternate worlds with entirely independent logics from our own. When we can peek out of our own private worlds, through a small frame, and into another world, that is where the magic lies.