June 29, 2013

Storm Gift

There were so many of these whirling around in the air during the storm few evenings ago. I curiously tried to identify their source, from what tree or bush the playful wind had unpinned and then, scattered them around. But I could not see - and it did not matter.

 For as they spun dervish-like, they resembled snowflakes-and it momentarily and bizarrely appeared that it was snowing during summer. And then, one of them absently drifted into our balcony…and stayed put on the floor, not melting. I picked and brought it inside. And there it was: both a gift and souvenir from a summer storm. 

June 19, 2013

Fallingwater: Story of an Iconic House

Fallingwater exterior

Honestly speaking, whenever I think about what kind of architecture fascinates and appeals to me, I always identify it as to whether it looks pretty/fantastical/unusual. I have never given much thought to as to how it feels, as in when you walk inside a building/space and sense how the varied design, interior, and other visual elements have converged together to create an ambiance peculiar to that specific location. At the most, religious and spiritual structures have had that kind of impact upon me, especially Jain temples, which I consider to be amongst the most peace-inducing spaces I have ever been in. However, I can't recollect any other buildings which have exerted such a hold on me. 

Before we got married and I was curious to know more about Pittsburgh and its adjoining areas, my husband mentioned that the renowned American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright's arguably most famous house, Fallingwater happened to be located near Pittsburgh. And so few weeks ago, we paid a visit to see it in person. I remember encountering a reference to Lloyd Wright while researching a story on architecture some years ago but I didn't know much about him beyond that. Before we visited, I did nonetheless drop by the house's website and initial glimpses of its strong primarily horizontal, clean, minimalist lines reminded me of Le Corbusier, whom I largely associate with having designed Chandigarh at Jawaharal Nehru's request. That's just a purely personal association though!

Also known as the Kaufmann residence, Fallingwater essentially was a house owned by prominent Pittsburgh business family, Kauffmanns, which comprised Edgar Kauffmann Sr, his wife, and son; the house derives its name from the water-fall on Bear Run that it is partially built upon and its iconic design resurrected Wright's career, which was otherwise fading into obscurity. Considering its significance to Wright and the subsequent acclaim it enjoyed, the house is an interesting way to understand his design mindset.

View of Fallingwater from the spot it was originally meant to built upon

Set inside a thick forest which the Kauffmans incidentally had had re-planted, you can easily imagine what a sanctuary it must have been as you approach it through the grounds and down a winding path. The tour guide mentioned that the house was originally to be built in a spot overlooking the waterfall; however, Wright instead decided to structure the entire house around the water-fall so that it became a part of the house, rather than merely to be looked at. Such a decision was in continuum with his design philosophy of integrating the surrounding environment into the architectural narrative and making the structure organic, examples of which abound in Fallingwater. Indeed, once the windows were open, you would get a glimpse of the water-fall but also listen to the sound of continuously falling water, which would permeate the house. There is also provision of directly accessing the fall and Bear Run from the living room.

We took a basic one-hour tour, which involves exploring the house and being offered little anecdotes as to how the house evolved into being, including how the Kauffmans and Wright actively collaborated and innovated about the design and space. For example, at the fireplace in the living room, Wright retained boulders on the site and made them part of the hearth. I also liked the living room terrace, where you could gaze at the fall and Bear Run while a meditative Buddha head bust standing in the center of the terrace contemplated you in turn. 

I especially liked the living room area which took up the entire ground floor; upstairs, though, we saw the bedrooms of which Mrs Kaufmann's bedroom was my favorite. While the guest and Mr Kauffman's master bedrooms were cozy/cave-like (or as someone more bluntly mentioned in our tour-group, claustrophobic!), her bedroom was luxuriously roomy and opened out to a terrace which was almost as large as the bedroom itself. What a seamless transition it must have been to make from nocturnal dreams into dream-like natural surroundings upon waking...

Kaufmann Sr's terrace

Each room had its corresponding open terrace/space, creating an interplay between open/closed spaces. One anecdote which charmed me was that the design sought to accommodate a tree growing bang in middle of the property at the time; it was supposed to grow through the terrace facing Kauffman Sr's bedroom, creating a natural pillar of bark and green. The tree didn't survive though but I appreciate the design embracing and adapting to the natural contours, rather than entirely bypassing them altogether.

Apart from the main house, one can access the guest annexe by a curving flight of stairs; the rooms retain similar lines and features and what especially caught my attention was a table fashioned from a tree-stump. I actually thought that it was something that Wright had incorporated into the room...however, it turned out that the Kauffmans had had it made and Wright was a little disapproving, describing it as tad rustic. While in the guest annexe, I couldn't help but think that Fallingwater was as perfect a location for a murder mystery thriller as it could get! 

Living room and fireplace (courtesy:www.digdigs.com)

Apart from admiring its design, what I was also drawn towards was how every effort has been taken to preserve the original atmosphere and character of the interiors through paintings, books and magazines, artefacts and sculptures, and furniture. Photographs are forbidden inside the interior and you must carefully navigate your way through the rooms, wary of disturbing the house and its invisible occupants. It seems to be only a matter of time before they will eventually make their appearance, filling up the living room with gales of laughter and conversations and merriments...or retreating into their private terraces and soaking in precious moments of contemplation. For, it was a home at the end of the day - and like any home, it nests within its interiors many stories and secrets.

First glimpse of Fallingwater
The tour concluded, we ambled into the exhibition space, which testified to Fallingwater's national and global popularity and how it has been a muse for many. You can also indulge in a bit of in situ poetry so to speak, answering seven questions in one word answers to distill your Fallingwater experience and later weave those words into a poem. 

These were few of mine:


The poem awaits to be made...

Do you have a favorite structure/building? What do you feel when you are/were inside it?

June 17, 2013

Essay: Fashioning Fashion - The Pink Top


It was a long sleeved amaranth pink top with shiny fuchsia, red and clear sequins of varying sizes trimming the neckline. I bought it five months into my first year at university, undecided till the last minute whether I would actually wear it or not. My closet already burgeoned with unworn clothes bought on impulse, still sprouting price-tags and smelling of plastic newness, resigned to spending their lives in its dim interior. When push came to shove, I inevitably reached for that familiar, comforting neutral palette of camouflage: gray, beige, brown, white, and olive green. Wearing anything else – bright, embellished, printed – would doom me to visibility when I had assiduously perfected the art of invisibility all this while. Still, I bought the top anyway.

 In my mind, when I think of fashion and the relationship that I have shared with it in the last decade or so, two photographs manifest themselves. The first one is of me in a Dubai shopping mall a month after I graduated from school and was about to start university in UK few months later. I am wearing a military green three-quarter button down blouse and a khaki cargo skirt; more interestingly, I am posing next to a mannequin dressed in a sheer sleeved ruffled magenta top and white Capri pants. The second one was taken exactly three years later: I was due to graduate from university and was out for that one last ritualistic shopping trip with my friends. I stand in the gold-green dappled shade of a leafy tree, wearing the above mentioned pink top and a flared gray skirt whilst carrying a black and white sequin-trimmed wicker shoulder bag. During the time that elapsed between when each of these photographs was taken, I learnt to fashion fashion itself into a language of my own, as a wholly individual expression, rather than perceiving it as an elitist space into which I could never gain entry. 

Tops, shoes, handbags: all these accoutrements individually form a part of the greater narrative of the person that I have become over the years. As a teenager, immersed in the frothing pool of shyness, adolescent confusion, and attention phobia, I frequently suffered indecision and doubt about what and how I wore a particular garment. With passage of time, I have become more comfortable in my skin and yet, I cannot help but point out that the clothes have become my skin. Slipping inside a puff-sleeved gray cotton tunic, I instinctively revel in its whimsical button bodice details and embrace the garment as much as my individuality. Ultimately, fashion for me is not as much slavish surveillance of fashion trends and catwalk newflashes as incorporating and configuring whatever appears appropriate to my fashion saga. 


Over the years, I have learnt to befriend and rely upon clothes. Just as one is able to intuit and learn about a person from the books they read or music they listen to, the clothes that I happen to wear form part of my personal narrative, a narrative intensely crucial and enlightening for me, if no one else. As a compulsive packrat, I have religiously accumulated and preserved all those particular clothing items that have played a significant role in my life: the list includes the pink top, a floral three-quarter sleeve button down blouse that I gleefully bought during a sale from my then favorite store, Monsoon and a pair of kitschy, golden tinsel-fringed jeans. For me, those items document the person that I was when I wore them; they are souvenirs from a past which has inevitably become a foreign country. The pink top tells me of the moment when I learnt to embrace and incorporate color in my life, thus beginning my initiation into the playground of jewel-colored hues; the tinsel-fringed jeans embodied my desire to customize my outfits, injecting a bit of me into what was otherwise a globally ubiquitous and therefore, anonymous uniform. 

Similarly, having transformed a clothes tree into a handbag one instead, the numerous handbags piled atop each other too are an index of time, each handbag making me recall the year and occasion in which it was used. Like an archaeologist interpreting the past and its stories from layers of soil in a stratified soil sample, I too see a mélange of the past and present in the handbag tree. 

My sculptural cuff

 In the end, fashion assumes a performative element for me; at home, clad in regular wear, I am almost a tabula rasa, blank and temporarily adrift yet while wearing a favorite outfit, I occupy a novel space, performing and posturing for a different personality. As a theatre enthusiast during school and currently a fiction writer, I am accustomed to transmigrating through different personas. Fashion simply allows me to enrich and expand upon that theme, each new configuration of an outfit allowing me to inhabit an alternate persona; it would not be unbefitting to say that indeed, each varied persona requires a costume of its own, so to speak. 

 The other day, impelled by a desire to spring-clean and declutter my life, I began to ruthlessly purge clothes stockpiled in my closet. I found myself pausing on encountering the pink top: a sequin or two had fallen off and the pink was blanched, the victim of indifferent washing machines and caustic laundry detergent. Yet, its fabric was still redolent with memories of that significant time during my life, when I lingered in the grayland between being unseen and seen, when I was trying out one persona after another, searching for the one which would fit me the best. The pink top aptly described the persona I was then: a work in progress, a work that will always remain in progress throughout my life, in fact. Yet, in that particular intersection of time and space, the pink top was the perfect – and only - coordinate. 


This piece originally appeared here in The Closet Feminist

June 10, 2013

The Wall Project: kaleidoscope to Kaleidoscope Cafe

Kaleidoscope Cafe, Pittsburgh
It's been a while since my last The Wall Project post but I continue to gravitate towards walls of varying personalities: plain and unadorned, quirky and colorful, or textured and gritty. My recent travels and Pittsburgh have provided me plenty opportunities to indulge in wall-spotting and photograph them. I particularly loved this wall because of its crazy patterns and also, it struck me as to how my associations with the word, kaleidoscope have evolved over time. 

The first and only kaleidoscope I ever possessed was part of the gifts that Air India would present to their child passengers; it wasn't a particularly sophisticated kaleidoscope as it went but it amused me greatly during the flight and also, afterwards, during hot summer afternoons when I had yet to discover the joys of napping. I adored twisting it around and glimpsing the fantastical patterns that the tiny bits of colorful stones assumed each separate time. For years, when someone mentioned kaleidoscope, the red-patterned blue Air India kaleidoscope tube would pop into my mind. 

During my undergraduate years, though, kaleidoscope became Kaleidoscope, a cubby-hole of a cafe located beneath  the university library and adjoining the IT Centre and where everyone congregated for their caffeine/sugar fix or grab meals on the go. There wasn't anything particularly, well, kaleidoscopic about it apart from the fact that the walls were painted neon orange (and we know how I feel about that!) However, when I revisited university a few years ago, I discovered that Kaleidoscope no longer existed and had become a minimal stainless steel coffee-place instead. Yet, even now, I can easily conjure up the many hours spent in that tiny orange-walled cafe and the innumerable chocolate-bars and banana walnut muffins and gossip I consumed there.

In Pittsburgh, a friend recently invited me for her birthday celebrations at Kaleidoscope Cafe and one look at its appropriately zany walls and I knew that they alone merited a return visit to be photographed (and as it happened, the food too was an incentive!). Also, they have cute little eponymous kaleidoscopes placed on the tables for you to play around with as you await your order:) I had great fun peering into them...

Has a word assumed alternate associations and connotations for you over the years?

June 2, 2013

Painting Classes: Forays into Oil, Acrylic and Collage

I have always been fond of painting since childhood; I have several sketch-books from those years, filled with water-color vignettes of my life (Rajasthani puppets, money-plant cuttings growing in glass jars, pink-blossom creepers silhouetted against the cerulean blue sky). During fourth grade, I took water-color painting classes from a British artist acclaimed for her water-color depictions of Oman and then, discovered oil-painting during my second year of university: the fused smells of turpentine, linseed oil, and paint swiftly became addictive as did playing around with the combination upon canvas.

However, since then, there have been gaps of several years in which I never found the time or frankly speaking, the inclination to sit down with paints, palette, and a fresh white canvas. Reflecting upon the situation, I realised that for me, it had always been a pleasure to paint in a group, rather than on my own. Unlike writing, where I require silence and isolation (I would never be able to write in a coffee-shop, for instance), I enjoy the fertile energy that painting in a group produces and consequently, becomes a source of creative fuel to tap into. And so, when I chanced upon art classes here, I thought it would be a great and timely opportunity to refine techniques, acquire new tips, and absorb the communal creative atmosphere.

I opted for oil and acrylic classes, where I hoped to make further explorations into oil-painting - and  and embrace acrylics, which I had never attempted before. While learning and grounding technique was one crucial aspect of the classes, I also started to think more deeply about what I wanted to paint - did I just want to go with the flow and create stream-of-consciousness abstracts (ie simply messing about with paint!) or studiously cultivate a theme and work on a series? While the latter did not happen as such, I did work quite a bit with mixing collage and oils and some fun, spontaneous works such as this happened below:

Loquacious Planet, Oil and Collage
Mostly painting with oils and the classes being weekly also meant that I witnessed a painting emerging from a series of distinct, defined layers. Earlier, I would complete paintings in one sitting, unconcerned about layering/underlying colors: it was almost as if I was just seeking instant creative gratification. However, over here, I appreciated the transitions that the paintings underwent and the individual avatars they assumed at each stage of being painted. I also made it a point to capture each layer with my third eye aka my phone;) so I could look back on how the paintings evolved...

This was the result of my first class

Multiple Personality Disorder, Oils and Collage

Apart from intermarrying collages and oils, I did end up working on a couple of abstracts:

Storm Sky, Oils
And once I stumbled into acrylics, I couldn't help but think as to why I had never tried them before; they took me back to my water-color days, when I would meticulously work upon perfecting the junction of water and pigment. However, I had become so accustomed to using oil as a medium - and savoring the luxuriant manner in which it allowed paint to be blended and layered - that it took me a while to familiarise myself with using water instead. While I definitely had fun with acrylics and now looking forward to working on a piece combining them with oils, I must confess that I will always remain an oils fan-girl though...! 

Waiting to Take Flight, Acrylics and Collage

Apart from the weekly discipline of the classes and painting for several hours in one sitting, I also appreciated working alongside others in the studio - which was precisely what I had been seeking. Multiple conversations peppered the air: talking about art, giving feedback to a fellow classmate or simply walking around, pausing, and engaging with their art-works. As the classes approached conclusion, I was a little wary of whether I would still continue painting, given that the motivation/discipline would no longer be present to do so. However, I recently came to know about a group meeting regularly at various spots in Pittsburgh to paint in open air (something that I have never tried before!) - and well - that should be quite a challenge and incentive! Watch this space as to how that unfolds...