Hunger by Florence + The Machine is here and it’s such a visual rarity. Directed by AG Rojas, who seems to be the sole visual director for the new album High as Hope, has displayed an intelligent and intricate use of frames; a careful imagining of the space, objects and most importantly – art.
The restriction of the visuals within a square frame shows Rojas’s intentional reminder of how to acknowledge his effort. He has reflected narrative as a painting, words finding their meaning in the images, all reflected through a frame, or maybe, a canvas. A canvas where use of light, camera angle and elemental discontinuity makes every frame a work of art in itself. The recurrent use of long still shots, with the subject looking away from the viewer, is testament to the same.
It is not just the elements of direction that has caught my fancy; there’s much to be appreciated in the narrative as well. The most apparent theme would be the use of art as a metaphor to life. The statue shown in the early frames comes across as an allegorical representation of a human body in general, and that of Florence in particular – one may trace it from the hand gesture Florence makes in the first frame which is similar to that of the statue, and in many recurrent similarities in positioning in subsequent frames.
That said, we shall now look deeper into the statue and the reason behind using it as an allegory. Walter Benjamin in his essay Art in the Age of Mechanical Production has talked about as to how the meanings and values that are associated with an artwork changes with the change in the context in which it is placed. This perceptive change has much to do with how we engage with the artwork, our own understanding, rather than the inherent meaning or value of the same. The artwork is then merely an object of our understanding, our perceptions; our unilateral desires. For instance, the way we look at an object of every day use might change if we see that object being placed in an art museum, and then change again, if we later see it in the church. This coupled with the British concept of Seeing, which describes the ways through which aesthetics incorporates or subjects itself to the perceptive gaze, come across as a dominant theme in the narrative.
The statue, despite remaining the same, gets associated with various meanings with the change of the place and people handling it. For instance, for that disdained surgeon, dissecting the statue became a matter of ‘his’ satisfaction and claim rather than that of the statue itself. Also, we see the statue having certain voids which are mostly ignored except by one person who curiously wanted to go deeper in his understanding of an external figure. The moment he touched the voids, we see something unsettling Florence in the next frame – another sign establishing the allegory theory.
This is where I bring in the lyrics, or as Florence said it, the poetics. In a statement made to BBC she said: ‘
This song is about the ways we look for love in things that are perhaps not love, and how attempts to feel less alone can sometimes isolate us more”.
The constant positioning of ourselves, our bodies, to the fancies of others is what that resonates well with the statue allegory. The desire to be loved, the stretch of it to an extent that it becomes hunger, makes love a delusion. Despite being melancholic, she’s talking to herself as an other, and asking her to believe in her self and her beauty. For most importantly, sometimes it’s not about finding the answers, but about just knowing that thing; the thing that makes us feel the way we do.
Art relies much on representation, or maybe not. Aesthetics, as a discipline, has incessantly posed certain debates on the purpose and meaning of art. Such debates often place art as a matter of study within the meta-disciplines of philosophy, psychology and even science. While art for art’s sake is also a prevailing perception, what resonates as a ‘virtue’ among all is the inherent ‘authenticity’ of art. In this essay, I will talk about the understanding of ‘authentic’ in art (In aesthetics, one may also call it ‘authentic art’), the different perspectives on the same and how an artist achieves such authenticity.
Dardagny Morning by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot
In European aesthetics, it was the period of Renaissance that spearheaded the conscience of ‘real’ in art. What is famously termed as ‘humanism’, art began to look both inwards and outwards. The outward vision was oriented towards the life outside self, and the inward, was the recognition of the alike, the body, the human. This anthropocentric development was further given a spiritual direction by the Romantics. Suddenly, the concepts of ‘genius’, ‘sublime’ and ‘imagination’ rekindled the artists and the inward vision became much more individualistic. The art was no longer only the recognition of the ‘alike’ but it went on to celebrate artist’s own perception of life; sourced from deeper spiritual understanding of the ‘living’.
Starry Night by Van Gogh
As the individuation of art continued, it was during the 19th century that the concept of ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ in art became a matter of serious debate. In styles such as Impressionism, Modernism and Expressionism, artists were engaging with the outward subject matter but the representation of the same was not so clearly discernible as ‘real’. The shift in focus towards elements of art, namely light, colour and texture, the representation of the ‘real’ had to filter through the creative perception of the artist. In other words, the representation of the objectivity was refracted through the subjectivity of the artist.
With the development of science and technology, the world of aesthetics was presented with a peculiar version of the aforementioned debate – Photography. The medium of photography was peculiar because unlike impressionism, there was no indiscernible relationship between the subject matter and its representation. Rather, a photograph became the most realist and reliable representation of the ‘real’, the ‘outward’, the ‘life’. This gave rise to a new word in the debate on the authentic – the accurate. Unlike art, where authenticity, in different periods and styles, was determined by the different ways of expressing artists’s original creativity, photography left little for such ‘internal’ or ‘spiritual’ expression. The representation became so real that it was hard to call it authentic. This is precisely why photography had a hard time being recognised as a work of art; and the struggle continues.
Photographer: Guy Bourdin, Metropolitan Museum of Art
This is a right time to differentiate authentic and the accurate. Authentic, like in the case of impressionist art, is the representation of objectivity refracted through the subjectivity of the artist. On the other hand, Accurate is the representation of the objectivity with little or no refraction through the subjectivity of the photographer. This line of differentiation gave rise to two sets of parallel debates; first, whether photography only falls under the category of accurate, and second, which one between the two is ethically justifiable.
Miss Butterfly by Shadi Ghadirian
The first line of debate became apparent when the nature of photography saw a diversification. The rise of artistic photography dragged the medium away from its conventional understanding of a recording agent. The use of artistic expression through the medium of photography challenged the claim of it being an accurate representation of the real. The objectivity began to refract through the subjectivity of the artist, and the lines between accurate and authentic, blurred. However, not only the other forms of photography continued to flourish, the claim of artistic photography itself could not dismantle the distinction completely. The fact that the subject matter in artistic photography continued to be the most realist representation of the objectivity, the resultant accuracy continued. And so did, the debate.
Now, how do we move on to understand the ethical nature of art which is premised on this debate on Accurate and Authentic? The answer may lie on cognitive value of art. While Accurate gives us the most honest possible representation of the objective, it is the Authentic that makes us see beyond the representation. The cognitive value of Authentic digs deeper beneath the surface representation and bring out meanings that remain unseen in Accurate. The true meaning of original is what is true to an artist. If an artist considers a self-alienated and accurate representation of the objectivity as the only meaning of original, so be it; for there are also artists who believe that original cannot be produced without the refraction of objectivity through an authentic perception of self.
As Simone de Beauvoir puts it in he Ethics of Ambiguity, the true authentic self becomes meaningful only when its other-regarding. Authentic or Accurate; an original or true artistic expression requires an engagement with the outward. While, the terms of engagement might differ, the very fact that an artist consciously realises this engagement, makes her work not only meaningful but also transcendental.
When it comes to photography, especially today, what is it that we capture and, what, is it that we imagine. Once understood as a refracted reality, a photograph has been reduced to a word, a letter, just consumption.
In the age of Instagram and Snapchat where billions of pictures are shared every day, it has become difficult for photography, and more so for a photograph, to exist independent of a voyeur, to breathe its own little universe within that well constructed frame.
Partha Mansukhani’s untitled work displayed at Iridescence Exhibition at Symbiosis Law School unravels itself in no shyness. One may begin to understand the work from the life that moves within the frame, or more so, a movement of such life captured but alive. Theorists of Photography such as Cartier-Bresson have written extensively on how the process of photography captures the movement of reality in its own movement of split second. The idea of motion being captured in stillness might sound quite peculiar to some, but well, that’s what distinguishes photography from other forms of expression and honours it with the status of art.
In this work, we can see the capturing of dual movements which do not only co-exist but also overlap. One movement is of the reality we see within the frame, that is, the movement of the walking man, the flight of pigeons and the flowing surface of the sea. The other movement, something which on the surface can be termed as ‘beyond the frame’, but at a connotative understanding, exists very much within it; overlapping yet contextualizing the movement so seen; the movement of Bombay. It is this connotative understanding of the movement, as Barthes would have put it, fascinates my understanding of the photograph.
Partha comes from a family of mixed ethnicity; paternally Sindhi, maternally Tuluva, and spent all his life in Bombay. It was only in the past year that he began to make himself learn the history of the Sindhi community, their travels and travails, sourced from both academic literature and his grandma’s personal narrations. All this while, he found himself moving deeper into the cityscape of Bombay, a city which not only boasts of considerable Sindhi diaspora but also of its seamless assimilation.
The constant of Bombay is its spontaneity; the ever moving life drawn from the patterns of people who live it; every single day.
It is in this unconscious movement of madness, that there lies stillness which often goes unnoticed; the stillness of the space. The constructions may come and go but the space remains forever; maybe not enough sometimes. Just like the sea, the surface rises and lowers, but the sea, and its self, remains.
It is this complex relationship that Bombay shares with itself that we see being refracted in the picture. And what is being reflected is how Partha ‘chose’ to perceive Bombay. Upon the stillness that Bombay provides him, he constructed a movement that, to him, sums up this complexity. A still space maneuvering the movement to create an identity of itself; oh so Bombay, and oh so, Partha.
Coming back to the surface movement, the denotative meaning, we can see all that is, as it is. Amidst a man so unknowingly walking away from one end to reach somewhere unknown to the viewer; amidst the pigeons aimlessly flying and being perched, and through the entire length of city displayed on the far end, we see disorder and chaos wrapped so lovingly and unapologetically in nostalgia. In all of this, we see Bombay, Partha’s Bombay.
She presented me with a choice, a banking lecture or a ride to the post office. Even if I would have thought of contemplating a bit, there she said, ‘we will have such a good time together’; So, not much of a choice left, you see.
We barged out of the college gate, withdrew some cash from the ATM, and chose to walk to the post office, which quite incidentally, was located within the airport premises. During that walk, we witnessed both the cherry blossom trees and a pile of garbage at the corner of the pavement, but, we chose to talk about the philosophy of mono no aware, a 5 minute journey packed with a lifelong belief in the pathos of beautiful things. Maybe, that explains the cherry blossom trees too.
At the airport, we were received by a post office which had no human within it. We thought ‘they’ must have gone for lunch, so we decided to hang around, take a time, here and there, see it all tick by. ‘I always find airports fascinating‘, I told her, ‘would love to stop someone from going away someday‘, ‘that’s so cheaky’, she said, ‘even if it is, it feels good‘, I replied, ‘but it’s so unfair for a person who has spent so much time in packing and preparing food for the journey‘, she shot back, ‘well, we can unpack in my house while having food in the car en route‘, I concluded.
It is here, during this time, post this conversation and at this place, that she introduced me to her postcards. The picturesque collection of photographs ornamented with messages so personal, and oh so warming. From the ones depicting prancing tigers to the ones having wine savouring old ladies on them, every piece felt so different and so uniquely special. It is not the picture itself that differentiated one from the other; most of the uniqueness came from the handwriting of the person, the address noted, and most importantly, the feeling expressed.
Sitting there on the side bench and going through this stack of her postcards surfaced a smile that was hidden for a long time; one reflecting not only the sense of understanding, but also the sheer joy of being a participator in someone else’s. All these years, how silently you have moved, within and beyond. How much you have come to learn and unlearn. And in all of this, I finally see you. I see you risen, awaken and most importantly, loved. It was maybe during your suffering that I felt so connected to you, but it was this, this unexplained happiness of sharing, that I felt peaceful; it was here, amidst all the strangers coming and going, that I felt the silence of contentment, and MAN I’m so glad, I felt it with you.
It is striking here that the places people live in are like the presences of diverse absences
– Michel de Certeau
What is it to see the city stripped off its subjects; of its people and their perils. How would you ‘look’ at the space when all that is there to see is stillness. A still photograph imbued in a thread of many, unlike a movie, moving in time but not in motion.
As I board my cab for the airport at around 2 am, I become one of such subjects. I look at the city, like the still photographs, passing by but not moving; with every frame, image, capturing a still scene of what may be the city’s identity, or the part thereof. What is this ‘city’ anyway? How and why do I perceive this space to be a ‘city’; that too a city very orderly differentiated and demarcated from the other spaces (maybe, other cities). What is it that propels an understanding within to see this space as a limited and structured display of self which is given to be demarcated from the limited and structured ‘other’; that ‘other’ being either experienced or imagined. Maybe, in that ride to the airport, I take this limited and structured demarcation to be a ‘given’; much like a Gramscian development of an internalised and rationalised hegemonic belief. Or, is it the pure ‘uniqueness’ and the aesthetic of the same, reflected in the stillness of the city-scenes, that lifts my conscience from the profanity of material understanding of meaning to the spiritual escape into the metaphysical.
Either way, I continue to travel; being driven on the route predestined by an app that maps my movement, my journey from the start to the end, and introduces it to me in a faceless display with an alien voice. But, how much could the market and its technology assert control over my journey? What is this ‘journey’ anyway? Is it the mere physical movement within the material space, or does it carry possibility of constructing non-physical movement termed as ‘experience’? If the literature of the past and present (and hopefully future) is anything to go by, the journey is more conversational than didactic. It is the development of oneself through an array of meanings, both constructed and understood. Yes, there is materialism, though not always, involved in what we understand as a ‘journey’. But the meanings that we construct are not always constructed upon or within the space orchestrated by such materialism. And, even if we do, let’s say, my journey is foundational and is well within the voids structured by the materialism; there is no ‘given’ in terms of interpretations I gather off the well-defined material space. Neither, do I, bound myself to the singularity of meaning that the materialism of the space might expect off me. So, dear ‘mobile cab-booking app’, and the hideous display of inhumane manipulation of the space that you create by ‘mapping’ my movement, you can never control my ‘journey’. You might be able to control the fodder that feeds the construction of my meaning, my relationship with the space, but nothing of your volition will ever be able to decipher the understanding I rationalise through this self-driven ‘movement’ called ‘journey’.
‘Photograph… a record of a reality refracted through a sensibility’
– Victor Burgin (1986)
Shadi Ghadirian and her range of artistic photography vocalise two of her most personal identities: Iran and womanhood. However, as expressed in her collection Miss Butterfly (2011), and in various films that struggle to sieve through the web of state censor board, personal and public are not significantly distinguished and demarcated spaces for Iranian women. However, it is not the politics of her subject matter that is the only fodder for one’s fascination; if one may look closer, or deeper, it is her process that fancies.
In her frames, Shadi Ghadirian captures the duality of contemporary existence in Iran; imbued in life’s contradictions and an innate desire to be understood. This duality can be seen as a struggle, if not a conflict, between tradition and modernity in the prevailing sense of representation in Iran. To Shadi, this duality in representation is more apparent in the representation of women. In her collection, Qajar (1998), Shadi uses the style of traditional Qajar photography, famous in the 19th century Iran, and twitches the construction of meaning by invading the traditional space with an object that signifies modernity.
The duality represented in Qajar answers well to the understanding of a ‘photograph’ as provided by Roland Barthes. Instead of its artistic composition, Barthes was more focused on its construction of cultural myths on a mass scale. In Mythologies, Barthes asserts that a photograph is a coded, historically contingent, ideological speech which is amenable to scientific study and semiotic analysis. In Qajar, we can see Shadi substituting the surface understanding of the picture with a larger ideological and political meaning which is represented through well coded symbols that carry certain political meanings in themselves. Therefore, the use of a traditional style (Qajar) as a space where little objects of modernity are placed, alienates the meanings earlier associated with these two elements and conjoins them to construct a new political meaning. Interestingly, the women in these photographs maintain the facial features and aesthetic sense that was prevailing during the Qajar period. In such a frame, an object of modernity seems like an inevitable reality to which women in Iran might have dealt with in an operational sense but not in a cultural sense.
Apart from construction of duality in representation of Iranian women, we see another very fascinating feature in Shadi Ghadirian’s photographic process: The symbolisation of the subject matter.
Photography for Shadi is as symbolic as it is real. So much so, that when the urge to surface the reality, which has been brushed aside for so long, becomes irresistible, the symbols become the voice that speaks on behalf of reality so silenced. It is when the language of reality becomes too hard to gather, that the symbols become the mouthpiece of one’s truth.
In Miss Butterfly, we see the frames depicting meanings that are drawn not from the referrant herself, but from the space in which the referrant is placed. In addition to this, the interplay or engagement created between the referrant and the object (in this case, the web) alienates both the referrant and the engaged object from their own meanings and reduces them to become mere symbols of a political message.
Miss Butterfly was inspired by renowned Iranian playwright Bijan Mofid’s piece about a butterfly’s ill-fated pursuit to encourage her fellow insects to escape captivity of a spider’s web and go see the sun again. In each of the images from the collection, women are shown weaving or unravelling webs attached to the frames of light (an exit). They seemed at turns overpowered by the narrow staircases and rooms or dwarfed by the stately homes in which they are placed (Nagree : 2006). More than anything, it is the overpowering darkness that reflects the most upon the reality of the lives of these women.
Shot in black and white, the women in these frames are symbols of multiplicity of layered meanings. One such layer is the public-private divide in the lives of Iranian women. The images show women wearing the headscarves even in the private space within a domestic setting. Some critics argued that the same was deliberately done by Shadi to comply with the guidelines of the state censor board. One might not see this distinction as relevant within the religious context but the same does come across as a constructed meaning from the direct reading of the photographs.
Unlike the meaning usually associated with photography theorists, the pictures in Miss Butterfly are much alienated from the actual reality of the referrant. Such alienation is much evident in the poetic construction of the frame where the object which symbolises captivity is enlarged from its usual/normal size. Moreover, the careful selection of space and source of light, also work towards alienating the referrant (women) from their actual historical context; hence reducing them to mere symbols of general understanding of oppression. One may say, Shadi Ghadirian in Miss Butterfly, becomes the author of the photograph; metamorphosing the reality into well construed ideology and representing the same through intelligently placed symbols.
We can see this well thought of placement of incongruous objects to create meaning in her other acclaimed works such as Like Everyday (2000) and Nil Nil (2008) as well. In all of these works, the ideological motive becomes a vantage point from which objects (including humans) are seen through preconceived meaning.
It is through her well choreographed process, that Shadi Ghadirian imbues movement in stillness. Since the subject matter of her photograph is not the historical fact or abstracted reality but a political meaning, the pictures escape the socio-temporal existence and remain relevant till the political objective is achieved. Therefore, the referentiality and indexicality of Shadi Ghadirian’s photography is not reflective of the world represented in the photograph but of the world ‘out-there’; that is, the world outside the photograph but yet so near.
This subject matter, however, runs contrary to the classical understanding of photography which considered a photograph to be stillness; so much so that some considered it to be a death. Christian Metz in his Photography and Fetish (1985) argues that photography operates as a figuration of death. Metz says ‘photography is an instantaneous abduction of the object out of the world into another world, into another kind of time… photography by virtue of its stillness ‘maintains the memory of dead as being dead.’ In common parlance, photography is compared with shooting; the camera becomes a gun.
Shadi Ghadirian, on the other hand, is bringing alive the voices of the dead and the denied. With every frame and image, she challenges the ‘still’ nature of her medium of expression by constructing meanings that remain relevant, existent and omnipresent. Shadi’s camera is not a gun; it is not a flag of peace either. More than anything, it is a mirror; reflecting what ever movement and the moved fails to see through his own naked eyes.
My concerns do not align with how biology understands my age. Maybe we just somehow decide to develop into what biology expects us to be; like a good ole Indian parent. What fascinates me rather is how I’ve been thinking of my age lately.
When I sit across a bunch of humans from South Delhi in their twenty something, I sense abstraction; not of myself but of others. I understand them to trenches but I don’t wish to. It’s not the understanding of age as a number that propels my understanding. It is the feeling that erupts when a fish meant for deep waters is brought to the surface and is asked to breathe. If age is a hedonistic expression of lightness that makes you feel that you belong to someplace higher than this, that would be me.
Then there are metro rides where all the fascinating instances are staged. When you’re thrown into the transporting vehicle by a dictatorial regime called Rajiv Chowk, you survive. You stretch, extend and reach out to hold onto even a slightest piece of something stationary to keep yourself steady. This is where and when you are put into the strangest of situation where you are so close to a person who appears to be nothing but a body to you; also breathing (oh how unfortunate). And then transporting vehicle halts, in hope of taking more unwilling souls in; so the bodies collide, heavy gasping happens, and sometimes, smiles surface. Everything then is not your head versus my head, your bag versus mine. It is a sense of togetherness emanating from mutual understanding of travails and triumphs of a metro ride that knows no age.
From being older, to feeling no age at all, there are times I feel much younger than the lot. A popular bar in Aurobindo Market, people walking in, walking out, or, just spread out. There are clothed in the high street; glasses and hairstyles so niche yet so similar. As the lights were dim, I saw the slightest of expressions getting lost in the rising cigarette smoke, of theirs, the frail sounds of platonic conversations dissipating in the winter chill. Where am I in all of this? Where, or what, are my expressions; how does the noise of my triviality sound like? Maybe, a little louder than silence and a lot lesser than meaning. So, there I stand, somewhere in the corner, staring into the voids that do not even exist; only if the faces so unfamiliar could be called one. I feel displaced, distracted and oh so young.
Okja is undoubtedly a reflection of Bong-Joon Ho’s evolving auteur. A mouthpiece of environment advocacy shied down by wry humour and avant-garde character design. As any film review would define it, Okja is a story about the journey of a young South Korean girl who fights against all odds to get a genetically enhanced pig which does not belong to her either physically or intellectually. The movie never deviates from its central plot and each shot is quite smartly put to create a fast moving progression of the primary storyline; something which really fuels the existing anticipation. However, despite its strict editorial work, there are few shots in Okja that really stand out for reasons other than the central narrative. These shots are not about Mija (Seo-Hyeon Ahn) or Okja; rather they come across as a didactic commentary on a post-modern understanding of human relationships.
Hayao Miyazaki, a Japanese anime giant, has given us a dreamlike depiction of Mija’s life in the hills. The sounds of running water and breaking branches engulf the viewer in the serenity and simplicity of a life closer to nature. In almost all the shots we see both Okja and Mija developing a personal relationship not between themselves but also with the natural bounty around them; whether it be the giant rock or the flowing streams. We hardly see any sign of modern technology but there is contentment abound. There’s a prevailing of a selfless yet a settled sort of a happiness which is not dramatically over joyous or unnecessarily indulging.
And then we move to Seoul; a city to its every definition. Suddenly, we see panoramic and aerial shots being taken of the herd of people moving towards the railway station – just like the ones showing the hills in the beginning of the movie. These shots sort of reintroduce the viewer to the narrative of the film, maybe emphasising on the shift in the storyline. However, I also see them as a conscious effort on the part of the director to showcase a distinction, and that too of a stark one, between a rural and an urban life. However, this distinction is not just physical but also emotional. The aerial shot of the herd of people moving towards the railway station focus only on the quantity of the subject matter and not the identity. So, we just see a faceless crowd moving uniformly towards a common destination reflecting the growing mechanisation of human activity. This is in complete opposition to the free-moving and unregimented movements of Mija and Okja on the hills.
This regimented and mechanised ‘city-life’ is shown to have a distracting capability of its own. On one hand, we have a determined Mija trying to find a familiar face and on the other, we have an association of beings spatially so close yet empathetically so separated. This brings me to the second most profound didactic theme – alienation.
When Mija reaches the Mirando building in Seoul she is met with a surprisingly empty office and a lot of glass walls. One of these glass walls separated her and the receptionist who then asked Mija to use the telephone placed on the other side of the glass wall to communicate to her, ignoring the most obvious of Mija’s signals. That glass wall represented the alienation that has become a characteristic of the urban milieu where people are more comfortable in communicating digitally. This also stands in contrast with the kind of communication and understanding Mija shared with Okja despite not understanding each other’s language. This sign of digitally induced alienation is also visible in the scene where a girl who is running away from Okja in a supermarket chooses to make a Snapchat video rather than actually experiencing the feeling of being afraid.
Within the scenes of Korea, we see another sign of post-modern emotional deficit – Animal Liberation Front. This sign is very subtle and confusing for it operates in overlapping meanings. Modern day organisations walk the line between being phoney and being relevant. And then sometimes we come across organisations or people who cannot fight a cause until it is contextualised; neither can they connect on emotional levels without putting that connection under a contextualised category. ALF failed to grasp both the emotional simplicity of Mija’s relationship with Okja as well as its own decaying ethos – respecting the animal life. Though their understanding does change in New York when they are faced with some disturbing visuals and an unknown fact from the past, the way they operated as an organisation as a whole does reflect a sort of contextualised understanding of animal rights. Their faith in non-violence and ecological conservation did become a part of Bong’s wry humour but it also reflected as to how modern day organisations have become increasingly normative; vying for immediate short term impact rather than aiming for long term structural changes.
Okja is not a narrative with explicitly enlarged sub-narratives. These sub-narratives are very subtle and can be subjected to interpretations. However, the use of camerawork at certain shots forces a viewer to delve further into the intentions of the director. The central narrative may or may not promote vegetarianism or at least the abandoning of corporate food processing units, but it sure does try to create an awakening about the rising emotional decadence in the digitally connected urban beings.
Between ‘one pint down’ and ‘thinking about another’, a conversation happened. Like most of my social outings, I didn’t exactly plan to meet the other party to that conversation, but I guess it happened for good; or, it could not have happened any other way.
Sitting on a jute mat at a quiet Naga café, the guy across the table carried a life story that was very fascinating. In a capsule, he got drunk one night, booked a ticket to Andaman Islands with his friends and then never came back home. As much horrific it sounds at this juncture, the follow-up is just so dreamlike. He fell in love with the scenic nature of the Islands and decided to settle down there. To his good fortunes, he immediately got a job at a tourism agency with a humble pay for which he bade goodbye to his job in the States. Five years fast forward, he’s now a diving coach at Havelock Island (Andaman), has a girlfriend and is still dwelling in a small studio apartment where he comes back to sleep after his enchanting tryst with nature.
Now, with this sort of a lifestyle set as a premise, there wasn’t much left for me to boast about my life – a law student surviving on optimism and slugging through competition. However, I did feel a little hit in my wits (maybe because of that second pint that I finally decided to take) that made me think the other way; to see through the romantic construction of his life. It may have been anything else, but as of now, I think it was that one thing that he said during that conversation that caused the hit – how it feels like to live in the ‘now’.
A remote island 1220 km away from south-east Indian coast, Havelock Island is a much neglected, strategically significant and naturally gifted Indian territory in the Andaman Sea. This faraway land is much closer to nature’s bounty; devoid of accessible mobile or internet connections. It is in this environment that this friend of mine found a home like nowhere. He said that it is like living in the ‘now’; detached from the strings of past and future. The only access to the news about the ‘parallel universe’ comes from a newspaper brought to him once a month by foreigners working in his organisations who get a permit for only 30 days and need to return to their respective countries once in every month. So, it is the music of the winds and the vistas of the stretched out sea that entraps his conscience for the longest duration of time – a form of liberation, as he puts it.
Does that mean that the life I lead or is led by some of the people that I know is not lived in this idea of ‘now’? And, is it even worth harping about? Well, to each its own, can be a possible answer. However, to me, it looks more like an excuse than an explanation. So I thought more closely about it and did come across with certain explanations.
There are two ways one might feel like living a life of this diving coach from Havelock. First, it is a natural calling motivated by one’s deepest understanding of self or coming to know of the same. Second, the romantic construction of such a life in one’s head, more like a reference group, without understanding the correlation of the same with one’s understanding of self. I think for my friend, it was the first case that motivated his decision; even though I don’t know much about him. However, to a lot of people, it may be a motivation falling under the second category.
The information we receive about these referential lifestyles is mostly asymmetrical. We often tend to focus on the broader bright side of such stories to feed the voids existing in the understanding of our own life. This is how we create some sort of a mental equilibrium (or at least try to do so) by feeding hope and aspirations to an apathetic conscience. ‘Grass is always greener on the other side’ is a phrase generating from the similar mental construction. There are many philosophers and movies that have vividly romanticised this idea of ultimate liberation – a detachment from all possible human connections that take us away from nature. But is it the only form of liberation available or is it just a form of resignation disguised as one? I would say, it’s neither.
Nature itself asks to move away from structural and linear interpretations of life. The constant movement and mutations of smallest of cells is a reflection of the degree of diversity we are capable of. So, in this particular understanding of nature, the liberation and the lifestyle as fashioned by my diver friend becomes ‘one’ of the many choices available. Something which is neither smaller nor larger than the life we naturally desire to live and not romanticises about. It requires a much deeper and honest understanding of self to differentiate between the one wanted and the one fancied. So, the diving coach doesn’t live in the ‘only now’; rather, he lives in the ‘alternative now’ and so do we.
If I’m a person who seeks to outgrow his space and predictabilities associated with his identity, I’m a person of movement and not resignation. For me, liberation lies not in finding solace in a static life closer to nature but optimising my potential and energies in understanding the diversity this nature offers. This doesn’t put the orientation opposite to mine in a less important pedestal. It just gives me space and authority to respect and love the alternatives that I wish to choose for myself. There’s no pitting one ‘now’ against the other. It is about recognising self and nurturing it within the various alternatives of ‘now’.
So, as we bade goodbye to each other and I headed for an eagerly awaited family function, I settled my bill and scribbled a little note for my diver friend that read –
“I would love to walk your land, or the only land you know. I would love to wrap my head around the liberation that you understand. But I will soon grow different and might want to sail away. For the island that brought me liberation once, might also bring rising waves within that hit the rocks hard and then retreat back to the sea, defeated.’
Murasaki Shikibu, if not dissected psychoanalytically, represents a landmark of women literacy in the history of the world. As court lady in the ancient Japanese empire of the Fujiwara period, Murasaki pens down what is seldom referred to as the first novel in the world.
Murasaki is able to write a sort of historical account of her period due to the proliferation of Chinese language in the elite circle of Japan. Daughter of an imperial aristocrat, she was exposed to the learning of Chinese which was seen as a status symbol for the high ranking families in the region. Even though Japanese relations and actual cultural importations from China were put to halt by her time, she does create a cultural bridge between the prosperous Chinese civilisation and her own northern city of Heian Kyo (modern day Kyoto).
In her massively popular The Tale of Genji, we see quite an insightful account of Japanese socio-cultural life of the early eleventh century. Out of many themes, what marks the depth of the entire novel is the spiritual element that Murasaki is able to grasp and reflect upon the circumstances of her real life. After the death of her husband we see the reflection of Buddhist ideas of impermanence and universal transience in the poetry of Murasaki who herself was a devout Buddhist.
Buddhism (Tendai) came to Japan from the Chinese hills and became the dominant religious faith during Murasaki’s time. The Mahayana Buddhism and its principle of resignation from the sorrows of the world reflected heavily in the Japanese poetry of the ancient period; even though the same wasn’t followed to the letter in practice.
Japanese Buddhism was fascinated with the concept of fleeting nature of the world and the same can be seen in this poem from the Nirvana Sutra:
Brightly coloured though the blossoms be, All are doomed to scatter. So in this world of ours, Who will last forever?
So in Japanese Buddhism, the memento mori should not be a grinning skull but the images such as scattering of blossoms or the yellowing of autumn leaves, which served to remind them that all beautiful things must soon pass away.
The host full of women Japanese writers of the period include one of the most emotionally intellectual poetess Izumi Shikibu. In her poetry, we can find an outspoken lamentation about death and illness. This is an excerpt from a splendid and one of the heart warming poems she composed, and this one, she wrote on her death bed:
Yo no naka wo
Nani ni tatoemu
Kogiyuke fune no
Ato no shiranami.
Yo no naka wo
Hana miru hodo no
Kuraki michi ni zo
Haruka ni terase
Yama no ha no tsuki.
This was translated by Arthur Waley:
This world of ours –
To what shall I compare it?
To the white waves behind the boat
As it rows away at dawn
This world of ours –
Why should we lament it?
Let us view it as we do the cherries
That blossom on the hills
Out of the dark
Into the dark path
I must now enter:
Shine on me from afar,
Moon of the mountain fringe
The same lamentation about the fleeting nature of life can be seen the sombre dispositions of Murasaki Shikibu. The Tale of Genji is heavily preoccupied with evanescence and death. She writes (in her diary) – ‘If only I had been more adoptable and respond to the pleasure of this fleeting existence with a little more youthful enthusiasm! In her verse she writes:
Like the waterfowl that play there on the lake
I too am floating along the surface
Of a transient world
Apart from lamentation about the sorrows of life, we see a sense of understanding of the transience nature of the world. Another Japanese writer Sei Shonagon writes about the death of her mother –
“The moaning period had come to an end and as usual time was hanging heavily on hands. I took out my psaltery and, as I dusted it, plucked occasionally at the strings. Now there was no longer a taboo on playing music, and I reflected sadly on the transience of this world.“
And finally Murasaki writes –
As I walk across the bridge
That spans the Ford of Yume
I see that this world of ours too
Is like a floating bridge of dreams
Japanese poetry of the ancient period cumulatively reflects the theme of resignation, an ideal so central in the teaching of Buddhism. Even though the subject matter focused on resignation, the very act of writing and creating a body of literature that is homegrown, shows a complete opposite of it. As the eleventh century marks the blossoming of Japanese indigenous culture, after centuries of Chinese and Korean imitation, the idea of democratisation of art and the aesthetics itself have something to cry and take pride at the same time.