The Truth about ‘Still Life’ Painting

“Don’t only practice your art,
But force your way into its secrets,
For it and knowledge can
Raise human to the Divine”

-Ludwig van Beethoven

In a world of Instagram filters, Photoshop and DSLRs, one might question, what is the point of Still Life painting anymore. The genre that, in definition, tries to create on paper a replica of a few objects placed together as seen in their natural state. The genre that, in intent, tries to emulate real life as closely as possible.

Modern tools (compared to traditional tools of brushes, palettes and colors) also call upon our aesthetic sense and are an opportunity to make rich use of our creativity, to choose and define what appeals to us at any given point in time. I love this new revolution because it has suddenly made the concept of aesthetics accessible to everyone. It is also interesting to see the amazing and different ways in which some artists combine new tools with older ones to create more interesting works of art.

Why go through the pains of creating a still life painting then? What could one possibly gain from something that increasingly seems futile?

When I was a little kid, cameras were not as common as they are today. Nonetheless, I had the same questions. Art period in my crowded classroom reduced to this task of reproducing as exactly as possible some objects, a landscape or people. If art is freedom of expression, then this class felt the exact opposite.

Fortunately, I was saved from this narrow perspective of art and introduced to the way people have used it through the ages in an art class outside of school. Here every week we explored a different art form from across the globe. This was a huge contrast to the art period in school because I increasingly came to find that general art forms which are adopted by communities are actually very simple (think Warli, Mithila, Aboriginal Art or Rangolis) and yet intricately aesthetic. They must be simple if they are to enjoy wide adoption. The weird, almost idiosyncratic shapes and different colors or techniques opened up a pandora’s box of expression. I have talked in an earlier blog post about how this exploration inspired some of my own early work.

Of course, none of this passed for ‘art’ in school.

This tug of war plays out on a larger stage in history and society. Those who followed the classical school of thought imported/derived from Europe would scoff at the what had been community art for centuries in other cultures.

In Europe, the likes of Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci etc. were pioneers in the art of perfection. This culture continued during Renaissance. Impressionists suffered and struggled to shift the primary focus of a piece of art from the object to the self. The impressionist’s philosophy was to express the object the way one felt about it.

So then why is it important to strive for re-creating objects exactly as you see them on paper? For the longest time I thought that this was just an archaic vestige of an old training system. And that it was being continued simply because it had existed for so many centuries.

Again though, I was saved from this narrow perspective. The real reason why still life painting would be important for any artist was a long process of realization that I was very privileged to have during my training at the Art Centre in Sahyadri School. It was only possible thanks to Salim Sir and Poorna Aka who nurtured and enriched the wonderful environment of the Art Centre, almost like a zen enclave. I don’t remember Salim Sir ever saying more than a sentence or two in any art class. He always moved around us, added a brush stroke or two and moved on. But in his brevity he taught us things several lessons worth, many times over.

Fruit Basket

When one practices still life painting over a relatively long period of time using different media and tools, the most important learning is not painting but it is the art of observation.  The art of still life painting is actually just that. The more intently you observe an object’s form, proportion, shadows and highlights, the better you connect with the object.

The 2 years in which I intensely practiced art, we experimented with painting many challenging surfaces. And one of the most important things I learnt was not missing out on the small details that make a huge difference. For instance, I observed this wooden chair. Getting those few strokes right that emulate the way a wooden surface and its polish reflects light was key to making this chair come alive.

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Each surface has its own way of interacting with light and this interplay is what makes it unique and challenging.

Clay

book

 

For instance, above is a simple and common enough still life study. There were however two major challenges in this work. One was depicting the depth of the glass. The other was achieving the cumulative surface that is formed by the pages of a book.

Creating an illusion of 3D depth on a 2D canvas is one of the most challenging tasks of a painter. Most people imagine that depth can be achieved by adding a dark shade in the relevant area but how do you show depth in a white bowl where the light was falling right into that depth? That was the challenge of this study.

bowl

Depth in a white bowl

Another important point that I realized with this training was that white and black are possibly the most useless colors in a watercolor palette. If you are imitating real life, both are too strong and too artificial (just as in the real world of ideas and opinions).

Surfaces that consist of several smaller parts are again more challenging than a usual flat surface. A tree with all its leaves, a thread roll with all its thin threads, a bamboo net with all its strands…

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The surface and light combination that was the most challenging and the one that I also enjoyed the most was metal. Metal is really challenging because it reflects everything like an obfuscated mirror. I love painting metal because the more challenging it gets, the more interesting it is to paint it.

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Towards the end of our time, we tried our hands at one of the toughest assignments yet: glass, steel, brass, copper all rolled into one. This was one of the most challenging pieces I have done. This task revealed how difficult the same surface can be in the same setting. While I captured the steel base and the glass surrounding the burner well, the convex glass just above that was too daunting. The reflection of the green cloth and the glass in the brass plate gave rise to shades that I found difficult to emulate on my palette. Even then, I thoroughly enjoyed working on this one.

metalglass

Many people think that art is a form of implicit expression but maybe it isn’t. A painting or a piece of work is a bridge between the artist and the viewer. An artist must observe deeply and intently to better connect with the object. The more you connect, the more the object becomes a part of you. The more successfully you develop and express your own unique, authentic perspective. Your painting forever carries your idea with it and a viewer who can connect with that unique perspective is someone who has truly understood what you were trying to express. After all, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.

There is a certain flexibility and ease of the hand that becomes your natural way after much of this kind of work. The ultimate dream of any artist is to find the act of creation so natural, to find one’s art so effortless that it originates from you in a natural flow. That if somebody watches you, they successfully fall for the illusion that what you did was effortless and simple. Yet what you produced was beautiful.

This dream inspires much  of my philosophy in my research in artificial intelligence and machine learning today.

On a different note, this is also where the two seemingly divergent paths of the perfectionists and the impressionists meet. There is a reason why Van Gogh’s Starry Night evokes such a powerful response from people or Michelangelo’s sculptures touch people’s hearts. Irving Stone’s biographies ‘Lust for Life’ (Van Gogh) and ‘The Agony and The Ecstasy’ (Michelangelo) beautifully describe the passions and arduousness that led to the timeless works of these two artists. These two biographies have deeply influenced my relationship with art and my views on life.

Personally I think one’s best creation is where one does not have a very clear memory of creating something. I have experienced two such moments, one in poetry and one in painting, something that Salim Sir asked me to call my ‘Masterpiece’.

But more on the two masters and my masterpiece in another blog post. For now, I have said enough.

 

Why I love ‘Zero to One’: The Contrarian Question

I am overwhelmed with Peter Thiel’s ‘Zero to One’. Do not confuse that with admiration. I am simply overwhelmed because I have rarely ever read a book that is so insight-heavy. The book’s title goes something like ‘Notes on Startups’. I feel you might as well replace that with ‘Notes on Modern Day Wisdom’ and that would be more apt. Peter Thiel mentions that this book is an exercise in thinking and I think its a very good one at that. So although I don’t completely agree with a few things and I am wary of his libertarian conservartism, this book is superbly exciting.

After the foreword, the book starts with this question “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”

I remember very distinctly the moment I read this question. I sat quietly as I experienced an implosion inside me. I was commuting back from work and things blurred past me. I lost some sense of where I was in time and space. The last time I was asked this question was probably a decade ago in a class discussion. And this event itself was an exception because I went to a rather different school that occasionally takes the risk of asking students to think for themselves.

There is a famous Zen Koan (come again, whats that?) which essentially says- “Try to see the non-obvious.” It is a puzzle because it asks you to see something non-obvious. If its not obvious, then how can one see it? And therein lies the distinction. It is not non-visible, it is just non-obvious. This means it is something that is very much possible to see, not visible to most people and most importantly will take some effort for one to see, beyond the usual.

Can you imagine what a brilliant question this is? That our entire education system for all its grand claim of cultivating young minds, falls so highly deficient in this small little question? While the thought process that could develop an approach to this question is somewhat encouraged in the Sciences, I think we all should do a better job of encouraging it in everything else. And most of all in History.

“History is a set of lies agreed upon by the victors”- Napolean Bonaparte. I bring this up to argue for not focusing only on the victor’s perspective. I want to make a case for this not only on ethical grounds (what are those anyway?) but for some more useful reasons (More on this in a second).

A lot of our present is shaped by our interpretation of the past and Religion still has a stronghold of most people. So it is necessary to keep asking this question to make some sense of the perceptional chaos, that is the human legacy.

Coming back, in short, I was blown away by this question. When I reached back that day, I wrote furiously for a few hours as I had so many responses to this question. A few days later, after infusing some coherence into this huge thought-download, here I want to write about the one answer that I cannot keep simply to myself (and is also the least controversial).

So here’s something I have for what I have named the contrarian question:

What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

People study success to understand what to do. But I believe that one should study failure equally and more to become the next successful person.

Experience is the best teacher but most of us are not good students.

At an individual level, some people are not able to handle failure and so they fail at failure. They fail at learning from it. They become timid in the face of future risks and adventures. Most are not able to study failure in a wholesome way to understand how to deal with it.

When we are trying something new, we tend to seek out those who have already succeeded and take advice from them, learn from them and sometimes copy them. Personally though I have always received the best advice from somebody who failed then succeeded. In short somebody who had tasted failure and learnt how to deal with that bitter taste. Figuratively, they fell down, but had picked themselves up, very well. They not only valued and appreciated what they had far more than someone who only knew success, but their advice was more useful, heartfelt and mature.

So this was the important truth. But why do I think that very few people agree with me on this?

Because basically, I do not believe that this inability to treat failure with the right framework is inherent. It is rather encouraged and nurtured over time due to the way our systems (educational and otherwise) of ‘paying attention/rewarding’ are designed.

In society and in our schools we idolize and worship the winner. We teach young minds that it is important to be at the top and our reward system is indifferent to the rest who tried, however well they may have done so. (*) This conditioning continues into our adult life when our society prizes only the successful and there is little or no appreciation for those who tried and how they did it. Maybe this is even more relevant in India where our society has not made the paradigm shift in appreciating failure. (Things are changing though, maybe…)

But this is not a clarion call to hand out more medals, awards, ‘A’ grades etc. Rather it is to hand out lesser of those and more importantly, pay less attention to them anyway. I’ll try to make myself clearer with an example.

When I graduated from high school, I put myself through the ((in)famous) grueling Indian engineering entrance exams. At the end of the exam session for that year, my school organized a counselling session with the previous year’s topper for some advice on navigating the complicated process of getting a seat in a good college after the results. This fellow had an All India Rank < 10 in the JEE (the largest, toughest exam). So on paper he had the best credentials to give such advice but in reality he was probably the least suited for the job. For one, he had no experience in navigating the messy and chaotic seat counselling process because he had gotten the top seat in the best college by filling up a simple form. He had no experience in resolving the confusions that come along when you have to choose between 2 ‘not-the-best’ options, make lists of pros and cons, all the while managing your inner confusions and others’ expectations. Because he had faced none of it and hence gotten over none of it. This is not to say that what he had achieved was not awesome, it was. Yet he did not deserve the position of the guide-post for the rest of the class for that. A far better person would have been somebody who would have juggled many options and converged on one choice. The decision process of someone like that would have been far more useful for all of us.

Our systems tend to reward people for their skills, advantages, intelligence but rarely for what they end up doing with those attributes. Intelligence, beauty, these are natural attributes that attract appreciation but it almost appalls me sometimes when we do not ask, “Great, you are gifted with some good stuff? So what have you done with that so far?” Or better still, “So you started ahead of everyone on the start line, but how far did you go from there?” But anyway this is for another blog post, another day :D.

It is people who have experienced a transition from success to failure or from failure to success that have the most to offer for good advice. So the next time you are wondering what to do and need some advice, pull out a list of the winners and losers. And if possible, before sounding them out, do examine how they got there. Because ultimately in which category they fall is vastly unimportant compared to how they got there.

It requires great luck and culmination of several factors to become successful. “Luck favors the prepared mind”, so they say. One important aspect of being prepared is being robust, and knowing what not to do is a great step in that direction. What not to do => know what didn’t work=> study failure. A lot of times that can be a great starting point for what should/could be done.

Maybe we are this way because of our history. When conquerors fought wars, there were clear demarcations between the winner and the loser/failure. And the losers were quite literally rooted out of existence. As I walked the aisles of British Museum a few years ago, I was surprised to learn that the ancient Greeks only rewarded and recorded the identity of the winner, rank 1, in the original Olympics. There were no runner-up positions. Maybe they didn’t want to do the paperwork (scrollwork, whatever).

2021 Edit after discussion with Matician’s co-founder Mehul Nariyawala :

In 2021 I had an enlightening discussion with Mehul about this blog post. He added a very subtle and important point as to why we are so averse to studying failure. (Thankyou so much Mehul for reading the post and giving these ideas such thoughtful consideration!). That subtle nuance is this: At the individual level it is our ego which prevents us from studying failure. Collectively these individual egos distort our perception of history and prevent us from learning important lessons from failure, both as individuals and as groups (teams, companies, communities, countries etc.).

It is not simply a matter of moral virtue. I firmly believe that technology is pushing us towards a future where the individual can only successfully survive technology’s rapid changes armed with an extensive analysis of failure. I talk about this in some more detail in a more recent blog post at ‘Future of Work: A Vision’.

I believe that our systems are obviously far more capable now and our minds are too (even though conventional media would like you to believe the contrary).  In essence failure is important and those who have failed and then succeeded tend to have the most authentic and useful advice.

P.S.: This book has technology as its underlying theme. But I cannot resist pointing out that this question essentially summarizes the entire job description of a financial investment manager.  And for all the nerd-aversion of wall street, asking this question constantly and coming up with good answers is what most successful investors do.

Stranger

Mermaid Vancouver

Stanley Park, Vancouver

To share with the familiar
No burdens
To share with the friend
No hurdles

Will you be my Stranger?

Listeners who only talk
Talkers who only babble
Babblers lost in their cacophonous minds
Everything’s a squabble

Will you be my Silence?

Many have come
And taken
Many have drunk
And walked away shaken

Will you be my Future?

To build a bridge
Of precarious expectation
And leave me stranded
On a ledge broken

Will you be my Keeper?

To hear everything
And judge nothing

Don’t be
My Stranger….
Just be Mine
Stranger……

~Aaksha Meghawat

My Django Journey

I have been wanting to put this together for over a year now. This is a collection of great blogs, tips, tricks, tutorials, how-to-s that helped me go from an absolute Django noob to setting up a full fledged website (solely depending on them).

I have benefited tremendously from open source software as a student and as a professional. Here is a very small effort to acknowledge everything that helped me on, as the title suggests, my Django journey.

This post is for noobs, first time users and/or developers who are considering Django among their options to set up a website.

<On a side note, I have always questioned the use(lessness) of taglines for marketing, but Django comes with a beautiful tagline, ‘For Perfectionists with Deadlines’. I really couldn’t resist checking Django out after that 🙂 >

First off, if you are a web developer and in the decision phase for choosing the framework/stack that you want to use, IBM has an excellent overview of Django. This will give you a quick view of the backend code, the code structure and a few tools that you would have to dabble in from start to finish, without having to do any experimentation of your own. This link is meant for developers and for somebody who has requisite technical knowledge to judge a framework on technical grounds.

However, don’t get worried if you don’t find yourself in that category. If you are an absolute noob who finds oneself in the situation of having to set up a cool website, there is no need to worry at all. You can kickstart on the right foot by completing this great MOOC on Udacity: Web Development.This will require some good time investment but its totally worth it.

If you have decided on Django, then dive in:

This is the best and most succinct page I have ever come across on starting a Django project. It is an absolute MUST FOLLOW. Even if there is nothing else in this post that you read or use, this one link can take you very far in doing things the ‘right’ way. A recent update for Django 1.6 from the same author is here.

At this stage you should have a good idea of everything that you need in terms of software components and the major milestones you will have to accomplish to get your website up and running.

While the Django tutorial allows you to do away with the hassles of databases and servers, obviously, real life is not like that. Which is why Link (1) is so important as it outlines steps to make real life hassle free.

I will go ahead and emphasize something more here. It is quite common to not think of servers and deployment in the initial stages. That is not such a good idea. You should think of deployment from day zero for 2 reasons. 1) You will focus on designing your code for deployment and that will make life easy towards the completion of your project. 2) If you deploy your code early, you can have a good idea of how the website will look to the world and also demonstrate your progress to others during development itself. In that spirit here are 2 links:

  • Top 10 tips for a new Django Developer– You will/should keep coming back to this page during development to make your project as portable as possible and for smooth transition between servers, etc.

If all this is too much for you (tl;dr, didn’t understand etc), there is atleast one tip that I highly recommend. It worked great for me, even during development: A BASE_URL Template Variable in Django.

Enough of deployment (for now). Lets get back to the actual tools.

Link (1) covers this tool but I will mention it again because it was of tremendous help to me during development. I could manage my database and schema growth smoothly with this tool, which otherwise can be quite nightmarish during development. They also have some very nice and brief tutorials to get you up and running in a matter of minutes here. Again an absolute MUST HAVE.
(For starters you will never face this irritating error ever).

I chose to go with postgresql for the database and set it up using this short bunch of steps. I cannot find this cool blog online anymore so I have uploaded a pdf of the saved page. A few more helpful (almost MUST-KNOW) links for postgresql:

For the server, I chose to go with Apache. Some helpful links:

I am excited about this section. Some cool developer tips that made things really efficient and less annoying:

Django Specific

Although the django documentation is extensive and helpful, it is lacking w.r.t these specific tasks, which can be quite confusing for a newbie:

UI/UX- Using django-widget-tweaks made my life easier

Finally deployment- I chose to go with Linode. Read this blog + comprehensive guides of Linode and you should be good to go.

If you have made it this far into the post, then here are a few bonus pointers:

So well, without much ado, I will end this post now.

If you are wondering, where is the website that I worked on? I used Django to make an online game to simulate a financial environment for the students of London Business School. I am currently working to release this game under a GNU GPL license. If that goes through, I will update this post with the link and would be happy to receive some reviews. In the meanwhile, I hope these links will help someone as much as they helped me.

Code on!

(*)- In my experience I have not found Django’s FormWizard to be very helpful. After trying it once I stuck to designing and coding in multi-step forms on my own.

 

Of Colour, Minutiae & Madhubani

In my last post I had briefly described how the brilliant art centre at Sahyadri School enabled me to explore various art techniques from around the globe. But as I was putting together and cataloguing my work for this piece, I realized that my connection with artistic expression stems from a time much earlier than that.

A set of pastel crayons are in general owned by every kid in school these days. In a small hobby class which I attended under Varsha Trivedi, I was encouraged to have fun with pastels ( a far cry from the drab art ‘period’ in school) . She helped us to discover that one could mix and match seemingly different hard colours to create interesting and aesthetic effects on paper. It was with pastels and not fluid colours that I first discovered the effects of combining shades.

In India colour is an important underlying theme in festivals. In Diwali, a festival that I love and enjoy the most, making Rangolis is a common custom. Having enjoyed making Rangolis from a very young age, I decided to combine my experiments in pastel shade mixing with rangoli design styles.

RangoliPastelsAakshaMeghawat

I also experimented with  symmetry, geometric designs and not mixing shades but keeping colors of similar tones side by side.

DesignAakshaMeghawat

This was geometry on a large scale but I love intricate designs. And one day I found myself making this:
MinuteAakshaMeghawat

It was natural that I would combine the 2, colour and minutiae:

CombinationMeghawat2

CombinationMeghawat

At Sahyadri we had a small workshop conducted by a native of Madhuban village. I was delighted to discover that my obsession with minutiae was also captured in a beautiful folk art known as Madhubani. While it was an interesting experience to learn from someone who was not fluent in English or Hindi, we still managed to learn a lot and experienced how the smallest and simplest of shapes can look so beautiful when they come together.

MadhubaniAakshaMeghawat

 

Madhubani2

Simple colours, simple shapes, intricate minutiae, folksy madhubani………….

 

Warrior in a Pink Sari- Excerpts

The international and Indian media has failed to represent women in non-conventional roles. While the list of atrocities, crimes, subjugation and discrimination against women is endless and keeps expanding, the cultural, religious and even spiritual representation of women mostly just helps to add fuel to the fire.

I do not like to delve in this  because it is an endless abyss of disappointment that gets me nowhere. I cannot look to history, traditions or culture for anything. And by anything I mean everything, whether its more understanding, a solution or any form of objective assessment of issues etc.

Why this matter of representation bothers me the most is because of the plain hypocrisy in our culture that I cannot stop witnessing while most others fail to even notice its existence. For example, India has been shocked into a pathetic realization about where women stand in our society with the horrific rape incidents that are thrown at us every few months. But a worse realization for me is the hypocrisy in our society which is so entrenched that the same people who express staunch opposition for such acts, lose no time in queuing up for bollywood movies such as ‘Dhoom3’ etc filled with item songs and female actresses whose only roles are to wear short clothes, dance around and basically test/entice the audience’s libido.

This is why it was a much needed and welcome relief when my father gave me ‘Warrior in a Pink Sari’- Sampat Pal.

Although media and history love hyping up figures and creating larger than life characters, it is very rare that I have felt such a sense of heroism that I have experienced after reading this book. Even if Sampat Pal were not a woman, I would have been inspired to write about her for the sheer inherent awesomeness that she displays in her simple words and arguments. Oh and I cannot even begin to outline the awesomeness of her actions.

But she is a woman, and the kind of awesome woman who is missing from our society, who is not talked about in our media, and who has mostly never found a place in history(or for that matter in our religion). But her voice needs to be heard(**).

‘The Gulabi gang named for the pink uniform worn by its members, rose to fame between 2006-2007, very soon after it was formed. It came up as a vigilante women’s group who took upon itself the formidable task of battling the three pillars of Indian society- patriarchy, caste and corruption- in the Banda district of Uttar Pradesh. Dressed in Pink Saris with sticks in their hands, these women would march to the police station or the district magistrate’s office and demand justice for other women  who suffered domestic violence and MEN who were victims of caste discrimination and corruption. The woman who clad them in pink and handed them the lathis was their leader- Sampat Devi Pal.'(*1. On why she chose the colour Pink)

Sampat Devi Pal was born in the village of Kairi. At the age of eight she secretly managed to attend school but had to stop two years later on being discovered. She was never able to take up formal education ever again in life. To this day she remains illiterate, (an adjective she gets deeply offended by). She was married at age 12 and by 20, had had 5 kids. Despite all this and more, it is amazing that she has created so much impact and has been able to come up with such articulate arguments that have inspired many others like her to unite in her cause. (*2.Sampat Pal in her own words).

In an irony of sorts, her story first came out as a French book by Anne Berthod. It was only four years later that it was transalated in English. An irony that Sampat Pal herself recognizes(2nd last paragraph of this article).

What follows are a few paragraphs that struck me the most in the book. So without further ado, presenting to you excerpts from the book, the pure awesomeness that is Sampat Pal:

“Look at the swear words or the gaalis  for example. Why are they always about women? Behenchod (sisterfucker),  matherchod  (motherfucker), betichod (daughterfucker). Take any crude expression and its always about women. The other day I was asked to settle  a conflict between two brothers who were tearing each other to shreds because one brother’s goat was grazing in the other’s field. The argument became more heated. One called the other behenchod. What did his sister have to do with his goat? The other replied, ‘Matherchod!’. What was that all about? Those two idiots had the same mother! It never occurred to them that they were insulting their own sister and mother, the woman who brought them into the world. It was ridiculous!”

Mahabharata is a Hindu epic of the struggle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Draupadi was the wife to all the five pandavas ( Yudhishtir, the eldest Pandava lost her to the Kauravas in a game of dice and then Dushasana,the 2nd eldest Kaurava tried to strip her in full view of the entire assembly. Draupadi returned to Pandavas, dishonored. Pandavas raged an epic battle against the Kauravas after 13 years of exile to regain their kingdom and honor*3).

“I’ve thought a great deal about the Mahabharatha. Even at the beginning of everything, there was a woman. She was the main stake. Thousands of men killed each other over her. And why? In reality neither the Pandavas, who gambled her as a stake in a dice game as if she were some old horse, nor the Kauravas who wanted her to belong to them showed her any respect. The whole business was primarily about power. 4000 years later men haven’t changed a bit. They are still tyrannical, want to control everything and impose their domination, even when they are weak and full of vices. They gamble away their salaries, drink alcohol and beat up their wives. Worse still, many of them go looking for work in the cities and stay away for months to fulfill their mission. During this time, to forget how lonely they are, they get drunk and sleep with prostitutes, and when they eventually come home, they bring back diseases with them. Thats how AIDS began to spread in the villages.”

“When we got married, my husband used to smoke ganja. When we first arrived in Badausa, during the time he was out of work, he would be sitting in the courtyard of our house, puffing on his pipe all day long and doing nothing else. He was wrecking his health. I couldn’t stand the sight of his dazed eyes and constant apathy. So I forced him to stop. I’ve always tried to get him to make an effort. We used to argue all the time because he didn’t want to work harder. At that time I was the one bringing in the  money, looking after our family, taking care of the children as well as the house. Yet Munni Lal never missed an opportunity to present himself as the head of the family.”

“This is the paradox in the male dominated society, which is so humiliating for women. Women are despised and relegated to an inferior status and yet it is they who actually wear the pants in the house. They see to everything-the children, the housework, cooking and washing, and even the household accounts. In Rauli no one argued with my mother-in-law’s decisions, not even my father-in-law. That creep forced me to marry off my daughters at a very early age, but he never dared raise his voice against his wife.  Men’s bravery is all show. In reality they’re cowards. Most of them are selfish and act only in their own interests. Take my husband for example. He approves of my work and gives me moral support, but he refuses to do any more than that. He says it’s because he is a simple man who can’t take initiative. To listen to him you’d think that all he wants is for me to tell him what to do. What dishonesty! If I ask him to come with me to my village, he always finds some excuse not to come. Infact he is not really interested in my work. What I do is beyond him.”

“I’m also wary of ‘charismatic leaders’ whose glory obscures the contributions of thousands of anonymous workers on the ground who are less well known, but probably more effective. Take Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, for example. He’s dead now, but everyone still regards him as the patron saint of Dalits. In 1950 Nehru asked him to draw up the first Indian constitution, a text that enshrines the Dalit’s right to education and prohibition of discrimination against Dalits and women. Today though he is presented as the sole author of the text, he didnt write it all by himself. He headed a commission of several hundred people who all made suggestions and fought to get their ideas included. But the collective memory has forgotten all those people, remembering only the name of Dr. Ambedkar. Thats unfair.”

“At the moment the only donations I’ve received have come from foreign journalists visiting me from the US, the UK, France, Italy and Korea. However, the press in my own country has take little interest in me. I’m aware that the recognition of my work by Indians will only come via the  international scene. If the biologist Hargobind Khorana hadn’t emigrated to the United States, he never would have won the Nobel Prize in 1968 and would never have become famous in India. This is also why I agreed to write this book. And then, like all those travellers who come here from far ends of the earth, I too dream of travelling to other countries, exploring new horizons. My publisher has promised to bring me to Paris and I just cant wait! I would love to talk to French women, to tell them that despite our cultural and linguistic differences, women have the same problem on every continent. I’ve even heard there’s a replica of the Statue of Liberty in Paris. If ever I have the chance to see it, I’ll prostrate myself before it and pray for the liberation of all the women in India who are held prisoner by invisible chains that are stronger than titanium”.

For a complete picture of the things she has done to take on injustice, from threatening police inspectors to beating up thugs to forcing district magistrates to resign, one will of course have to read the book. She is a woman of action but her insight and her powerful inner voice were what struck me the most.

P.S.

If you aren’t tired of reading, here are the asterisks explained:

*1. “It was just a matter of choosing a common colour. Bapuji first opted for blue but that was the official color of the Bahujan Samaj Party(BSP). Then we thought of yellow or orange but that was too reminiscent of Sadhus and Pandits. Green and white are often worn by Congress volunteers and red is used by Samajwadi Party. The only colour remaining was pink, one that was commonly found and remained exclusive to women. It was easy to find any woman’s wardrobe. Most women would be able to afford it.

*2. “There’s nothing exceptional about me and I haven’t suffered more than the rest. Born into a poor family from one of the most despised castes and with no education, I’m just a woman like millions of others in India. My marriage and my husband were imposed on me and for a long time I submitted to the ways of my world. Like so many others I could have become a victim. But one day I said no to the law of men. It wasnt easy but I managed to choose my own life. Today Im the leader of the gang and I defend all victims of injustice: the despised, the poor, the exploited, victims of corruption. I know my cause is just and that certainty strips me of my fear. Im not impressed by authority. I’ll put a police inspector in his place just as soon as I’ll lecture a sheperd from my own caste. Physically I’m not very big but I have a solid constitution. I have a powerful voice and people listen to me. I am a woman and to make myself heard I have to make more noise than the rest-peacefully whenever possible, and with the help of my fists if I must.”

*3. For an excellent analysis of this event, one can read about the same in Gurcharan Das’ ‘The Difficulty of Being Good’.

** Just before I started writing this article, I caught the trailer of ‘Gulaab Gang’ on youtube. But then I came across this, ‘Initially, it was reported that the Bollywood film, Gulaab Gang, starring Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla as leads, is based on Sampat Pal’s life, but the director denied this, saying that he is obliged to her work but the movie is not based on her life.’  And because Bollywood in general does not fail to disappoint, so much for that.

The Buddha Theme

Buddha Close-up Batik

I was an artist before I became an engineer.

This was possible because of the brilliant art centre set up at Sahyadri School where I had the opportunity to explore several artistic cultures and techniques. In my 2nd year of this exploration, I found myself very inspired by Asian art revolving around the Buddha. Having worked on a batik piece, creating ‘Mohini’, I decided at the time to create a Buddha image not with a paint brush and paints, but with a batik spindle, wax and dye-colours.

Batik is a traditional Javanese technique in which selected areas of cloth are blocked out by brushing or drawing hot wax over them, and the cloth is then dyed. The parts covered in wax resist the dye and remain the original colour.  We start with the lightest colors working toward the darkest colors waxing the front and back and the front again for each new dye color used. When we are finished with this process, we put the fabric in boiling water and melt the wax off. This is the time the wax ‘cracks’ and gives the charactersitic batik effect to the cloth.

The challenge here was that I wanted to sketch the outline of the buddha directly with the hot wax canting. After a month of studying, sketching and getting familiar with the lines and figures of Thai Buddha, I began work on this piece. Another month of careful waxing, dyeing and boiling later:

Buddha (Batik)

The flowing lines of the Buddha’s garb and to create shades using dyeing in the garb as well as the lotus flower petals was challenging but also great fun.

Buddha Close-up 2 Batik

WITHIN

What am I?

A state of mind

A situation

An occurrence

A floating leaf in the flowing river

A speck in the great rush

A draft in the making

An event in the rolling time

To subject my energy to the vagaries

My soul to the torment

My tranquillity to attachment

My purpose to an outcome

My resilience to results

My path to the wilderness of others

Myself to judgement

This subjection, dilution, estrangement……..

Simply no more, simply no more.

On Inspiration and Entrepreneurship

This post is inspired from ‘The Social Network’. Before you read on, if there is a thought lurking somewhere in your mind that here’s another article singing a song of facebook, joining in hundreds of people doing the same thing all over the world, well then no, not really.

Today I want to think about what really strikes people. There is always something about inspiring people. Is it their rebelliousness? Is it standing out? Any passionate work of mind and spirit encourages copy cats, why?

If it was simply success that induced admirers, then we all would want to be ideal. Because then we would have to conform to metrics set in place by others.

It is not money or marks but its Respect, Envy and Revolution that drive the world.

Because it is not numbers, it is not rules and mundane awards that drive the world. It is not the conventions, standards, it is not even the unconventional, the rule breakers who drive the world. Not rule breaking for the sake of it.

It is originality that drives the world. Passion, love drive the world.

Real success not only generates respect, crazy unjustified downright blind following, admiration, sycophancy. It also generates mockery. People either hate you or love you, they go crazy in your passion and energy in either a good way or bad, but they go crazy because its all about passion.

And why do some things drive people crazy. Because at the end of the day everybody wants to fall in love with somebody or something, wants hope and a reason, to wake up to a purpose. Because it is not enough to breathe and eat and think. Life is not that, life is passion, it is love and dedication.

Why does anybody want a purpose to wake up to? Why do you want hope and a reason? Because possibly that is the only way of finding your centre and your confidence.

General Douglas MacArthur once walked through gun fire right on the battle field. As he embarked a second time to repeat the same feat, he asked a petrified soldier to accompany him. On being questioned as to how he could walk through gunshots with so much confidence, he laughed saying,” I will not be killed by these gun shots. I still have my purpose to fulfil.” The young soldier immediately replied, “Sir I have no such purpose in life to live up to.”

Confidence and conviction. Because sometimes you just know that you are right, because there’s no reason, because you know the universe will conspire not against you but for you.

It is all about living to the fullest. It is about being 100% of one thing, putting everything at stake, dreaming.

Entrepreneurship is not a modern day business concept, it’s a way of life, it’s a way of living that you choose in which you choose yourself over everybody else. You recognize your own individuality in the highest possible form (you give your own individuality the highest possible recognition), to give the best and the most of everything you have to one thing. And therefore even a seemingly non entrepreneurial activity can be entrepreneurial and sometimes starting your own enterprise can also not be entrepreneurial.

In the movie, Sean Parker said, “the record companies beat me but only in court”. He represented something that had defied all regulations but he represented something real. He was perhaps a non conformer.

There is no reason for you to think that this is radical.

And possibly the most critical point is to realize also that non conformity is not the way or a solution. This is not a call to drop everything you are doing, or surrender yourself to the unknown or disobey all the rules for the sake of it. But it’s a call to ask you to wake up, to live more, to be 100% more in everything you do.

If you want to be a non conformer, then be one but with full integrity. You want to break rules, break them but break them well. You want to destroy, do so but destroy well.

So what should you do? Ultimately what matters and what doesn’t? Do marks matter? Does popularity matter, do friends matter? Or don’t matter?

Should you drop out and wait for that spark or brilliant idea to come along? Not really. Be happy, do the things you like. Make sure you have no regrets and that you are happy with everything going on in your life. That’s all.

Learn to applaud the winners but do not forget the losers. Because there will be many losers who will be as good or even better than the winner and so learn to appreciate them. Remember ultimately that winning is fun but its not always beautiful and infact more often way more ugly before it becomes close to becoming anything beautiful. Accept the fact that people will work harder to loot, steal your ideas, work and achievements prior to and rather than acknowledging or appreciating you. That this is the ugly fact life.

Life is way more beautiful and way uglier than you can imagine, and you in all probability have no idea of the degree of its beauty or ugliness. That the most important thing is to keep an open mind, to be humble and never ride too high or too low. That there is scope to be happy and sad in almost any situation. And you have control of your life in ways you have not realized and you do not have control of your life in ways you might be tricked into believing.

That everything is confusing and because of that everything is also very clear. It is very complex and hence very simple.

Intense

Winston Churchill once said, ” From intense complexities emerge intense simplicities.” The veracity of that is realized when life thrusts you into a quandary. A quandary of sorts. When the mind cannot any longer comprehend one’s situation or how one got there. When all reasoning and implications are either insufficient or turned on their head.

Then the mind stops thinking.

It is only when you face heat that your mind distills. It is only then that you realize how unimportant judgments and classifications can be. That the illusion of control over your life is just that, an illusion.

It is only then that objectivity rises. The acceptance and the realization of what is and not just what one wants it to be.

In that bottom emptiness when you cannot bottom out further, only then can you resolve yourself. Then you are bare. In that difficult moment the elements that made you stand out. Your dependence, your nature. And even though you are an individual, suddenly your individuality is resolved. The smallest of elements that were not even considered to be participants in making you come out. Only then can you see your beliefs.

Every event in your life that presents you with an opportunity to bottom out, the pressure, the risk, the extreme, there is the risk that you will break down or enter a higher orbit. But more importantly that is also the only opportunity when you will have to resort to objectivity. And due to that compulsion objective you do become.

If you enter that higher orbit, from then on the taste of that exaltation pulls you further and further more to enter higher orbits. All your actions, your mind’s decisions drag you, pull you, attract you towards entering that higher orbit.

And if one does it for long enough, it gradually become’s one’s nature. The natural becomes indistinguishable from the forced. The world and even oneself begins to believe that this is me, that I am this.

Such are the heroes of the world, admired for their nature, for their detachment and lack of dependence.

But if you do not enter that higher orbit, you breakdown. All beliefs are discarded even if just temporarily. There is no attraction, no pull, no push, just you and the present. You and the now. Then the mind is jabbering, frantically trying to find a set of beliefs, a source to cling on to but you do not want (even if just for a while) to be pulled back into anything. Because you are tired of believing, tired of judgment, tired of your own attractions.
It is only in that complex descent that you have the chance to redefine your metrics, your beliefs.

And you have to believe in something because existence demands that. Presence of hope is life and its absence is death.

Once again you enter the cycle hoping that you may not break again, hoping that you will enter the higher orbit.

In those moments of redefinition one can be a curious mix of vulnerability and strength. Strength against the old and vulnerable to the new.But it is that vulnerable side which decides your course from then on. What you give into in that vulnerability is what your future will be.

And then someday in the future when you do look back, you are but a product of the metrics and definitions you chose for yourself that day. You may consider yourself to be wrong or you may consider yourself to be right but all you will be is not something right or wrong, but simply a product of your choices, definitions and metrics.