Artist-philosopher-writer Shakti Maira’s new book, The Promise of Beauty & Why it Matters is an ode to the word ‘beauty’ with all its complications and intersections and permutations and combinations, giving us rare and unpredictable insights into the notion of beauty through interviews with 18 eminent thinkers, ranging from scientists and brain-mind experts to artists and activists. An excerpt from Part 3 of the book that deals with the visual arts
Since yesterday, it has been very quiet in my studio. The incessant cawing of crows in the old Gulmohar tree, whose canopy covers the terrace outside, has abruptly ceased. The scraggy nest that had become the centre of the birds’ lives lies abandoned. The crow parents, who had deemed the entire terrace their territory, and would resort to kamikaze strikes at my head when I got too close, have moved on. I wonder what has become of their well-guarded precious child now that it has flown away to a life of its own. All morning I have been sitting and looking at a large canvas that I have been working on for several weeks. It seems finished. Nothing to add, alter or take away. I find myself smiling at the painting that has finally emerged.
Its dominant golden ochre hue comes from the fine clay I dug up from the bank of the River Ganga some months ago. It was dusk when the boatman finally found the old clay bank downriver from Varanasi, amongst the reeds on the far shore, at a point where this great mother river of India is about 1,000 kilometres from its source in the Himalayas and two-fifths of its 2,500 kilometre journey is done.
In failing light, we both dug up the fragrant clay and filled several small jute bags with it. It was a strangely quiet and peaceful place, aligned longitudinally to Sarnath a few kilometres north, where the Buddha gave his first sermon, and the wheel of Buddhism got its first turn 2,500 years ago. As we headed back upriver in deepening darkness, my thoughts drifted away to another day and another spot on this river about 750 kilometres upstream. A year earlier, at a deserted bank above the holy town of Rishikesh, I had waded into its fast-moving waters to release the ashes of my son. He was twenty-six years old when he died.
I remembered how I had bent down to carefully release the contents of the special cloth we had brought with us from New Hampshire, where we lived at that time, and how the racing river had snatched what little we had of him and had carried it away so decisively. The feeling of utter, complete loss welled up in me as it had that morning, when I found there was nothing of my son left in my hands to hold on to and there was no trace of him as the clear lively green-blue water gurgled, danced and raced on with his ashes. The night we found the clay, I immersed my hand in the river and let the water wash away the clay that clung to it. I did not take my hand out of the water till our journey ended.
Working on this painting, setting down with my hands and flat brushes the ground of clay on the canvas, the thought did occur to me that the water which carried him away that morning must have flowed past the spot where I had found this clay, even perhaps touched it, and it is now in this painting. The series of paintings, of which this one will be the centrepiece, is called The Pilgrims’ Path. It is about the passages and transitions in life – about grief and loss, healing and growth. In a way, it is a mapping of the many movements in the heart and mind as I left a part of myself behind and stepped forward seeking a renewed wholeness. The paintings are about the complex and astonishing relationality between the inner and the outer. The images move from the physicality of terrain, a path filled with roots, branches, fallen leaves, dust, kicked and crushed stones, ruts and gullies, to the vastness of the mind, with its furrows of consciousness and its hive of neural regions. Through making this work, I have come to better understand something important in life – that order does not exclude randomness.
The path in the painting is but a line painted on canvas. Yet, in making this meandering line that mimics the physical shape of the old pilgrims’ path from Varanasi to Sarnath, where it is said the Buddha walked, and while applying, wiping and layering the surface in numerous colour glazes, I somehow felt the different rhythms of breath and feet in my actually walking of that physical path came alive again. In the making of this art, and now as I sit looking at it, I find a measure of peace, grace and beauty.
Read More: On Shimmering Air