April 27, 2014

The Story of a Sketchbook

"Every moment has infinite potential. Every new moment contains for you possibilities that you can't possibly imagine. Every day is a blank page that you could fill in with the most beautiful drawings." 

John C Parkin

I have been keeping a journal since I was eight years old. I remember the first entry I wrote in that journal: it was about a Thursday morning walk exploring the nearby hill and consuming my mother's delicious home-made halwa for breakfast. When I was thirteen years old, I discovered Anne Frank's diary, which had a seminal influence upon the journals I kept afterwards in my middle and high-school years; whenever I re-read her diary (and which moves me more and more with each subsequent reading), I also bemusedly recall how I imitated the manner in which she wrote and described situations in my own diary entries without of course being fully aware or empathetic at the time of the hugely grave and devastating circumstances in which she was writing. 

A few years later, when I was studying Sylvia Plath's poetry in school, I read her journals whose raw, visceral quality then seared my thoughts much more intensely than her poems. Influenced by these diarists and others, I regularly journaled and so accumulated quite a collection of diaries growing up and in present day: most have faithfully transcribed my innermost thoughts and feelings while I have on occasion also kept a dream diary (yes, during my early teens, I thought my dreams were fascinating enough to merit a diary especially dedicated to recording them!), one probing philosophical and existential issues (I wrote that during my middle-school Buddhist phase;) and my writers' diaries, more of notebooks, really. 

I used to read about writers keeping notebooks stuffed with short story/novel plots, inspiring quotes and passages, amusing anecdotes, and observations and writing mentors also recommended that I develop the habit of writing in one too. I kept a couple but they remained largely empty, whether out of laziness or my inability to commit my imaginings to paper, preferring to store everything inside my head and later weave them into my writings. I began to scrap-book instead, literally pinning images cut out from magazines as visual references/influences. For past several years, though, I have diligently kept a daily diary which is more of a planner/to-do list but I do jot down interesting encounters/experiences in it too - and of course, the camera roll on my phone functions as a visual diary. However, I do occasionally reflect that it would have been helpful (to me at least!) to chart my growth as a writer and note down how and what exactly was igniting my creative consciousness over the years: books/writers, art/artists, social, political, and cultural issues.

A few weeks ago, though, I was in conversation with an artist friend about art and she then showed me her sketch-books containing quotes, sketches, and designs - and it was fascinating to get a glimpse into her artistic mindscape. I had previously seen other artists' sketchbooks, both online and in person - and it seemed like such a rich way of capturing the growth and evolution of one's thoughts and creative journey. My friend then generously gifted me one such sketchbook and I pondered what to do with it. It was one thing to admire a sketchbook but another thing altogether to furnish it with your artistic outpourings.

What would they be?


She inscribed it with her distinctive art:

Inscribed Art

I have never been much of a sketcher and I kept on musing about how best to do justice to the book when an idea struck me; I could fill it up with both a combination of art and the colors/moods/influences currently shaping me. Apart from also adding favorite quotes or passages from books, I thought of sprinkling the pages with an impromptu colorful collage as well. 

Rainbow Dreams

Let's see what the future blank pages will yield...watch this space:)

Have you ever received a special gift which has particularly inspired you?

April 21, 2014

Photo-essay: The Arrival of Spring Blooms

After what seemed like an unending, deadening winter, spring has finally arrived at our doorstep: prettily packaged and presented. As you inhale the fresh, invigorating spring air molecules and hear the concert of enthusiastically performed birdsong, you also become privy to the myriad transformations studding the surrounding landscape. For many months, your eyes had become tutored towards seeing the minimalist drama of bare branches silhouetted against the granite-gray wintry sky; green appeared to be an impossible, mythic notion. And now, there is suddenly so much to see and sense: almost as if accomplished overnight, tree branches are smothered in tiny crimson buds, white (pear? dogwood?) blossoms, magnolia blooms, and even trunks become the earth, miniature saplings emerging from their surface, the embryonic leaves almost plastic in their newness. Cheerful, sunny-yellow daffodils sprout from the warm, chocolate brown-earth while even the pine-cones bear lime-green plumed heads.

Yes, spring is here...and with that, I give my words a rest and allow these pictures to do the talking:

Starry Blooms: Every inch of this tree was covered with sepia-tinted pink magnolia blooms...it was one of the most gorgeous magnolia trees I have ever seen

Archway of Blossoms: Imagine walking beneath this archway of blossoms, the branches and blooms entangled in an enchanted embrace, providing a scented, pearly-lit path below

Abstract Blossoms: thanks to a little bit of help from photo-editing, these red-bud trees have metamorphosed into an unfinished abstract painting...

Buds: Red buds in detail...

April 4, 2014

Taking Notes While Trailing Abandoned Sofas


Wherever I go, I happen to see them, the abandoned sofas: do they follow me or vice-versa?

That's another thing: I do not see what eventually becomes of them. I instead merely take their pictures, plotting the coordinates of their presences upon the invisible, shifting, fluid map that is my memory and imagination. Even if they will disintegrate or be subsumed into the anonymity of a landfill, they still exist upon this map, my map, still abandoned nevertheless but not forgotten. 

** OMAN**

Lonesome: Seeb, Oman
I began spotting the abandoned sofas a few years ago. While driving through the sun-bleached streets of the sea-side Omani town, Seeb, I would often spot them sitting outside the modest one-story homes. They were more often than not faded, patched, stained, and sagging, the arms seemingly displaced from the sockets. 

There also happened to be a street in Seeb which was exclusively dedicated to selling wedding function articles; as you drove past that street, you would see fancily dressed up sofas, faux-flower festooned arches, and tables on display outside the shops, almost akin to mannequins in boutique windows. Like the mannequins with their perfect figures and features and coveted clothes, these sofas too were aspirational, strongly redolent of shiny, happy and beautiful occasions that were weddings. 

Yet, no such fragrance emanated from their less worldly, infinitely more battered cousins, these abandoned sofas. I wondered about them: had they been simply put outside as an extension of the private living space, the domestic blurring into the public? Or had they more likely been rejected and abandoned, left to the mercy of the harsh Omani weather: the searing sunlight, bone-white heat and dryness? Meanwhile, inside, their younger, fresher counterparts commanded court, blissfully ignorant of a similar future which awaited them as that of its predecessors outside.


Lavender: Barka, Oman

 One November morning, while walking towards a quiet beach in yet another sea-side town, Barka, I encounter an upended gutted lavender-hued sofa on the roadside; its color nevertheless still remained sharp and fresh in the sunlight. Perhaps, the previous night's thunderstorm had cleansed away the years of accumulated dust and blemishes leading it to be re-presented in its original glory days. Yet, regardless of its seeming newness, it stolidly sat there, like a tortoise turned upside down, waiting for someone to upright it. I did not know how long ago it had been discarded or abandoned; the sofa itself faced an abandoned, burnt house across the road, whose turquoise walls still gleamed brightly despite the layers of black ash caking its surface – and a shattered mirror, shards of its glass soul shimmering in the sunlight. 


Ship-wrecked: Al Khod, Oman

 A fervid Friday afternoon in a self-contained university campus: everybody is still immersed in the throes of a siesta, unwilling to awaken until the sun extinguishes itself. 

An avid walker, I can't recall why I happen to be walking at this hour and temperature of the day though. Even though I usually stick to a routine walk-path, I still find that every time I walk past one particular corner, there is a new surprise awaiting me; it is as if the corner deliberately invokes surprise, as if to compel me to walk towards, rather than past, it. And, surprises, they are: a marmalade cat looking up at the  ripe, brassy full moon in wonderment, as if it has glimpsed something quite unlike it before. A bougainvillea bush, sprouting from the burnt biscuit-hued sand: a welcome oasis-island of fuschia. A miniature township of cardboard boxes and scraps. I cannot help but pause, reluctant to leave behind these nuggets of extraordinary and return to the quotidian. 

Today, I find this: a ship, ship-wrecked, unmoored and dislocated. It sits like a king in the tree-dappled shade, adamant to retain its hauteur even though its courtiers and menials have long dispersed and disappeared. Having been discarded and abandoned, it attempts to establish a new kingdom nonetheless, intent on attracting a new coterie. 

This is its present reality, though. What lies ahead for it? It sits there, the cracked wall giving it company, watching the world walk past it without as much as giving it a glance. Even if they do, for onlookers such as myself, it is nothing more than a whimsical oddity to be briefly examined and wondered about. And then...the next step beckons, tantalisingly laden with discovery of new sights and worlds. Once the corner has been eventually turned, who remembers what lies behind? 

Yet, it still fills the air with its presence, adamant in its longing to be noticed and listened to. And yes, perhaps, one day, someone will want to hear its story. And it is this hope that sustains its illusions, its bid to become a whole, rather than a bit player, in the scheme of things. 

 Every time I walk around the corner, I hear its plaintive siren call...will I succumb one day? Who knows?


 I leave Oman and hopscotch to the United States; even here, the abandoned sofas find me and I find them. While my husband navigates supposedly the steepest street in San Francisco in our rental car, I glance through the window only to find a powder-blue chaise lounge primly standing outside a pink-blossom smothered blue porch. Viewing from the car, it appears to be slightly tilted, as if bit bemused by its fate. Is it being sold? But who could voluntarily abandon so serene and elegant a piece? I want to jump out of the car and photograph it. Yet, we are already careening down the slippery slope and into the undulating maze of San Franciso's terrain. This is the only picture I have of the blue sofa and can present to you of: a word snapshot. 

Mirror Door: Pittsburgh, United States

 A languorous, mild July evening: returning from a heady, summer-fevered street party, I short-cut through a damp, mossy alley en route to my apartment. Fragments of a party fall upon the ground from a large window set in a wall. I am more interested in the sofa standing upright and against the wooden door leading up to the house; there's a mirror placed against it too and for a moment, you would be forgiven for thinking that the sofa was mirror-studded, a fantastical sofa specimen, if there ever was one. However, it is apparent that the sofa and the mirror have been bid farewell. This is an university city and at this time of the year, students are packing up their rooms and apartments, their mobile, temporary homes – and the sofa has been peremptorily placed there. I take pictures but it's night and the phone does it scant justice; the next day, when I go to take pictures during the light, the sofa is already gone and so effectively has it been cleared away that it might as well never have stood there. 

Pillowy: Pittsburgh, United States

One morning, as I am musing about jewel-tinted glass birds which I have seen minutes before in an art-gallery I collide into the sofa, almost apologising before realising it is in fact just an inanimate object. It is a bleached sky blue sofa sitting in the middle of the sidewalk. Once again, the question impatiently neon-lights through my mind: Who put it there? Couldn't they have found any other place in the world? There is nothing else next to it. Everyone else walks around it, paying scant attention to it while it may just as well be invisible for the cars streaming past it. No longer irritated, I try to take pictures of it as is my wont - but am dissatisfied with the results; the angle is just not right, I somehow am unable to convey the sofa's character. It doesn't occur to me that perhaps, it doesn't want to be photographed: it simply just wishes to be sat upon and carry on with its business. 


Why are they so peremptorily abandoned? Does anyone rescue them – or perhaps, that statement merits questioning: do they need to be rescued, after all? These abandoned sofas inhabit a liminal country, having become permanent refugees. They cannot return to where they were exiled from – and yet, what future awaits for them? 

Are they merely objects of contemplation or does anyone actually sit upon them in their abandoned state? I think of the bleached sky blue sofa: how tempting and inviting and pillowy it appeared, seductively calling out to be sat upon and therefore, claimed. This is my original function, it says, rather than having metamorphosed into this eccentric oddity stalking the streets and outsides of homes. Sit upon me and endow me with dignity. 

Perhaps, that is the crux of it all: their function. When positioned inside a home, they performed according to their function: they provided shelter and comfort, a sanctuary after a long, exhausting day when the only and most desirable option was to shut out the harsh world beyond. They were one of the multiple pieces of furniture and objects that constituted the matrix of a person's home: they too were a story, part of many stories. 

 And yet, outside, in the streets, it is an entirely different matter: their former stories have lost currency. The streets are already interlaid with dozens of smashed unheard stories: fallen leaves, feathers, and flowers, one shoe, one glove, torn pages from a poetry collection, and crushed, juicy plums. In midst of this menagerie of oddballs and misfits, the sofas too attempt to locate their place, striving to understand what is now their function, striving to be understood.

 They cannot be ignored, they cannot be overlooked: for they determinedly make themselves visible, refusing to vanish into nothingness. And so, the least we can do is to ask them: what is your history? Where did you once live? And yet, we must simultaneously be aware of and sensitive to their present: displaced and existing upon peripheries. They may be abandoned - but they are not dead. Like migratory birds which cannot travel back to their original habitats, they must evolve and adapt to their new ones, abstracting vigorous novels from their present narratives. In the process, they become significant emblems of transition and metamorphosis in this dynamic world, drawing as much focus to themselves as to the liminal pockets that we, the onlookers, too inhabit and yet are consciously oblivious to. 

Whenever you encounter them, do pause and donate them your time and attention; they have much to say and every time you listen, you grant them a presence in their new world, enlarging their scope of purpose and function. 

 Perhaps, that's what they have been trying to tell me all this time.


This post originally appeared in The State's blog here

April 1, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Wes Anderson's Cabinet of Curiosities

Study in pastry pink: The Grand Budapest Hotel poster

I still remember the first time I encountered Wes Anderson's utterly distinctive cinematic voice: it was during my undergraduate days where the university student cinema showcased a preview of The Royal Tenenbaums before its official release in UK theatres. The student cinema held an all-nighter once every term, showcasing an assorted variety of films - and The Royal Tenenbaums happened to be one of those films which I definitely would not have thought of seeing at the time had it not been for the all-nighter. As the sepia-hued, darkly comic frames unspooled across the screen, I was instantly intrigued and transfixed by the quirky parallel worlds and characters that Anderson had created - and I still consider it to be amongst my favorite films.

A still from Darjeeling Limited (incidentally, I have been to this very temple!)
Having said that, I ironically didn't see much of Anderson afterwards though apart from The Darjeeling Limited. I didn't think it was particularly remarkable even though in signature Wes Anderson fashion, it was a veritable visual delight: beautifully photographed and presented what with the fabulously, minutely detailed train and photogenic detours within Rajasthan (and featuring my favorite Adrien Brody!) However, as soon as I saw the trailers of The Grand Budapest Hotel, which revolves around a concierge, Gustave on the run along with his most trusted employee, the hotel-lobby boy, Zero in a fictional European country in 1930s, I waited with bated breath to experience its ornately constructed fantastical universe, each frame warranting attentive watching.

One phrase that I have discovered and adored this year happens to be 'cabinet of curiosities' (also known as cabinets of wonder). The first time I stumbled upon it, I immediately conjured up a large, wooden, glass-fronted multi-sectioned cabinet filled to the brim with all sorts of curiosities: it was almost akin to peering into someone's imagination. And indeed, when I researched it further, the original meaning of the 'cabinet' in the phrase was in fact room, the multiple rooms and the encyclopedic range of objects they contained physically reflecting the length and breadth of the collector's interests and preoccupations; they were said to be precursors to modern-day museums,.

Purple meets Red: Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and Zero (Tony Revolori) converse

Pastel love: Zero and Agatha (Saoirse Ronan)
Having recently watched The Grand Budapest Hotel and attempting to distil the experience, it occurred to me that the best way to describe it would be through the prism of 'cabinet of curiosities', or as I interpreted it anyway - and the art direction would be the ideal place from which to start as the way the film looks is so crucial to the viewing experience. Each room/space in this film represents a specific, specialised imaginative space and considering that the film richly establishes multiple interior and exterior explorations of space, there are myriad universes to visit. We see flourishes of old-world hotel hospitality in a grand hotel, brutal rigors of a prison life, a pastry-maker's attention to her delicately constructed pastries, the baroque drama of a palace and family feuds encoded within them, and a murderer's menacing weapon-like rings. Each room and space therefore becomes a theatre in its own right, meticulously appointed with backdrops, objects and stories - and the performers thoroughly engage with the spaces, the spaces defining them and vice versa.

Adrien Brody behind a fortress of a desk
For example, in one scene as Gustav and Zero converse in deceased Madame M's palace, they do so in front of a window beyond which lies the pantry - and foregrounded by a cactus. What significance does the cactus hold? And yet, even when they depart from the frame, the camera lingers upon the cactus, almost as if the cactus is about to reveal something profound. Yet, that can ultimately be said of all the objects that populate this film, whether its the delicately constructed pastries, a painting in question (which implicates Gustav and Zero), a book of romantic poetry..

A fictionalised novel: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Whether its the process of creating or acquiring it, art plays a central role in the film and perhaps, it is no surprise that at times, the distinction between painting and cinema blurs in the film, creating a bizarre, surreal visual cinematic canvas. Anderson creates impressive gateways for the audience to access this universe and they happen to be composed of words: a confidential letter, a will, an unique coat/cat check, an inscription in a book, lines of poetry being quoted, and a lawyer's room wallpapered with precisely arranged books, to name just a few. Considering that the film is based upon the writings of Stefan Zwig and that it structures itself around a fictional novel, The Grand Budapest Hotel, words hold much currency indeed.

Critics have commented upon the box-like narrative form that Anderson uses for his films - and indeed, this film is a veritable Russian dolls of boxes: it is in fact a museum of Wes Anderson's imagination and the eclectic collection of curiosities populating it.

I can't wait to see what he comes up with next!

Image sources: various, Internet