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14th Anniversary Edition, Live Encounters Magazine, Volume Two Nov-Dec 2023.
Drawing from Nature by Gopika Nath.
Scrolling down my Facebook news feed, I came across a friend’s post. He was photographed, seated behind a Frangipani tree, holding its flowering branches close to his body, as if ‘fig leaves’ covering his nakedness. Dheeraj’s torso was bare but he had swimming trunks on. It was possibly an attempt at humour which somehow escaped me. I was reminded instead, of the heady fragrance of the Champa and how aromatic the hot summer evenings in Gurgaon were, especially after the sun had set. The flowers’ scent, heightened by the veil of night, lingered fragrantly beneath summer’s dark sky. As I glanced at the picture, I relived moments of just a few nights ago when I had cycled past a cluster of Champa trees; and then stepped into memories much farther back in time.
This Facebook image, of green leaves, camera lens zoomed in to show off their finely etched veins reminded me of an afternoon in 1982, during a power outage in the month of June. Those days we had neither inverters nor generators and just endured the blistering heat. Power-cuts were scheduled daily and usually at the hottest hour of the afternoon. Decades later the power situation has not changed much, if anything, has worsened. But residing in a condominium with the luxury of power back-up, I barely register when the electric power comes or goes – living on the eighth floor I do not hear the cranking up and down of the gensets. When I think back, I really marvel at how we did manage back then in the 1980’s.
It was probably around 2 o’clock in the afternoon when I sat on the verandah of my parent’s home in New Delhi, some thirty-five years ago, deeply absorbed in depicting the fine veins of the Champa leaves. In June, the temperature can rise above forty-five degrees Celsius. I was home for summer vacation before I returned to London in September. I always loved to sketch and that afternoon, I drew with sharpened lead pencils ranging from HB to 6B, intent on capturing every leaf vein in its shaded perfection. I worked with deep concentration, oblivious of the heat and when electricity was restored, for when I looked up the sun was setting.
I’ve always been drawn to details, be it through stitching, drawing or weaving. And now, decades later, a different kind engages me. After five days in hospital recuperating from ailments brought on by stress, I’d been home three days but not quite strong enough to swim or exercise much, but craved some out-door-ness. So that May evening in 2016, I went for a stroll, barefoot, in the park. It had been a hot day – the hottest May since 2010 and, a dust storm was also brewing. The sky was hazy with the grime of earth particles carried by the hot and dusty wind, and the earth was near parched. A few patches of grass still held dregs of moisture left over from a liberal watering of the lawn, but for the most part what I felt, was akin to dry straw underfoot.
The parched grass was covered with Gulmohur blooms fallen off the trees, in shades of her fading glory, from scarlet to orange and yellow – bright and insipid. I walked among trodden petals and recalled the branches overhead in radiant bloom, just two weeks ago; sighing at the inevitable transience of things. The flowers shall fade and humans shall age but, through nature one notices the simultaneous presence of growth and decay, recognising beauty in every state.
A few steps from where the carpet of green was mottled with Gulmohur reds, lay browned leaves that had fallen off my favoured Champa trees. From a distance they could be mistaken for giant geckos waiting to pounce – a terrifying thought. Because the chameleon family which includes the much dreaded household chipkali or lizard, give me the creeps.
Each evening I like to spend a few minutes getting up real close to the Motiya and Champa flowers for a must-have whiff. Their heady scents are like breathing in a moment of bliss. I braved the mock-geckos, hoping a real one wasn’t lurking among them, and tried to find a bloom close enough to hold and inhale its aroma. Looking intently, I found myself peering into tender green leaves similar to those I’d painstakingly sketched some thirty years ago. iPhone in hand, I captured this with a silent click and realised that while the phone-camera had made photographers of all of us, we had lost, not just the knack of portraying nature but also, the capacity to be mindful of little things.
Drawing from nature, transforming nature into art, was at one point in time contentious – suggesting that man was trying to reproduce the creator’s munificence and therefore blasphemous. The aniconic art that came as a response to Islamic ideals of non-representation demonstrated extraordinary levels of creative excellence without depicting living forms.
Although antipathetic to this interdiction, Christian iconography, Chinese painting or Indian icons, though representational, were not constructed to function biologically but considered “a kind of diagram, expressing certain ideas and not as the likeness of anything on earth.” The Indian maker was required to be a yogi, eliminating the distracting influence of his or her emotions to “realize a complete self-identification with it.” If the painter or sculptor missed something, it was attributed to lapsed concentration or imperfect absorption of the subject represented. This idea found common ground with Dante, the Italian poet and philosopher who said “who paints a figure, if he cannot be it, cannot draw it.”
Clearly, the ideal in all kinds of art was about merging with the subject and not just representing the physicality of form. Even though depiction of nature is no longer blasphemous or even a subject of debate, I wonder if our response to looking through (the now) ubiquitous phone-camera could come close to ideals which presented the artist as yogi. Could we extend our looking through the camera lens, to go beyond the mere recording of physicality of form to perceive the divine essence; and, what or how could that be done.
There is so much in contemporary art that just does not satisfy me and I often wonder how art may be a vehicle for deeper connections with the universal essence. I realise that portrayal of the figure as Dante would have us, is now passé because the instant click of the digital camera isn’t about capturing a true likeness. Thinking of whether there could be another way of connecting and merging, I went to sit by the pool-side.
Later, I took another stroll in the garden accompanied by a young girl whom I’d never met before. But, it seemed as if our energies were enjoined – she was in a state of trauma and most likely drawn to the healer in me and perhaps, had also come to help mend some part of me. For within minutes of chatting, she poured her heart out – all the woes of accidental, prescribed medicine complications which had resulted in severe neurological damage, sexual harassment and more. I’d met her at the swimming pool while dangling my legs in the cooling waters, as I reflected on various concepts of art.
She was sitting on a chair with a book in hand. Within moments of exchanging smiles, she abandoned her book and plastic chair, walked over to where I was, turned up her jeans and sat beside me. Dipping her feet in the pool, and without much preamble, she began unburdening her mind.
At first the chatter was grating but I as paid attention I found parity with the babble in my own head – of anger, resentment and unending words trying to make sense of things. Much of this had been suppressed because I was fed up with the non-stop inner harangue. Wanting to put an end to the internal rant, I ignored it – distracting myself with work, which had predictably resulted in the physical ailments.
Empathising with her agitation, I asked her to turn her back to me, placed my palms on the back of her heart chakra and began channelling Reiki. At first, I could feel her drawing the energy in, but then not so. Perhaps she was questioning the lack of inhibition with which she had opened up to a total stranger. Knowing how things within can be reflected back through others, I wondered it if was me who had closed my mind again. I could see from the strange glances that people were beginning to notice the awkward hand position – it wasn’t ‘normal’ social behaviour to clasp palms, on top of the other, placed on the middle upper back region of another to channel healing energies.
As if on cue yellow wasps started hovering around the pool edge so I suggested a stroll in the park. I thought I could introduce her to the fragrant Frangipani; that may cool her hurting heart as it did mine. As we walked out of the pool area onto the lawn, towards the trees on the far edge of the park, intuitively I bid her walk in silence and pay heed to the grass underfoot. She was too agitated and resentful and within seconds was babbling again.
I put a finger on my lips signalling the need for quiet. I hadn’t been inwardly peaceful myself but in that moment, I was able to listen. Hearing her outpouring had calmed me in inexplicable ways. Whether it was on hearing oneself through another’s chattering confusion, or whether seeing her greater agitation made me feel calmer, I was happy to be quiet and just tune into the vibrations of the grass beneath my unshod feet.
Taking off from the early years of concentration in pencil drawing, my penchant for detail continues, but it’s another kind that fascinates me – to go beyond the mere observation of the outer form as one did in art class of yesteryears. To be able to listen to the unspoken messages that life whispers in her breeze, her touch, and her aromas. For what I then heard and communicated to the young girl, stopped her in her tracks, providing a much needed moment of reprieve. Its wisdom was pertinent for me too. Just as I had thought earlier, despite her wounding she was an angel sent to heal me too.
I had tried to get her to walk mindfully, taking one step at a time, breathing in and out, feeling the grass, really feeling it through the pores in her skin, upwards through her legs and up the root of her muladhar (root) chakra into her spine, but she was unable to stop talking. With a tread that was not mindful either but racing ahead of me. However, when I conveyed what the grass suggested, her rant stopped. Those words, whose verbosity hadn’t let her grieve the abuse she was walking around and around in her head, were silenced as she paused to absorb the sagacity of the grass that never says “you’re walking all over me I’ll never be able to heal”.
It silently carries on its process of growth and decay. The nature of grass doesn’t change because we trample it under our feet. It simply grows back green, soothes the senses and grounds us on our planet earth. If the grass can grow back, if the flowers bloom year after year despite being ravaged by the wind, why does the human mind resist letting its healing nature in?
I was as surprised, as her, to hear these words manifest through me. Words I wasn’t aware of till I spoke them. In just focussing on the feel of grass through the body, becoming silent enough to sense the vibrations that pass through everything in and around us, seemed to make infinite sense that evening. Later, as we parted and I walked home, something lifted in my heart. It was as if all the thoughts that had been judging and berating me had been stopped and the burden of not being able to cope with life well enough was relieved. I felt light in step and better than I had in the preceding days.
My unknown companion, went back to the nowhere she had come from, wanting to stay connected. But I knew that we had done for each other what we could, the rest of the journey to wholeness we had to go our separate ways. Our connection was no longer in the physical realm but, a return to the divinity that had brought us together to walk barefoot in the park, to inhale the heady scent of the Frangipani and listen to the wisdom of the near parched leaves of grass.
Neither the phone camera nor graphite pencils were needed, just one’s momentary attention was enough to connect with consciousness itself, drawing upon the wisdom of its all-pervasive nature.
© Gopika Nath
Gopika Nath is a textile artist-craftsman who stitches and writes, threading her syllables into poetry, creative non-fiction and art reviews, where her art practice provides a mirror to the self. Her writings have been published in Bengalaru Review, Brown Critique, Lakeview International Journal of Literature, 100 subtexts, Garland Magazine, Varta, Verve and others. A Fulbright Scholar, alumnus of Central St. Martins School of Art and Design [UK], Gopika lives and works in Goa, India. http://gopikanath.co.in/