Creation born out of silence


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Category: Reflections Date: 24 Jul 97

‘For almost all of the 15 minutes my father would keep up a monologue... to which the three of us would complain: “Shhh Daddy, you are not allowing us to concentrate. You are talking too much”’


In one swift movement Peter Minshall struck an extraordinarily graceful pose in the gym. It was that of the Hindu God Shiva. “You see how androgynous, how powerful the image is? Shiva the creator and the destroyer?” I gape at him mid bicep curl. He adds: “Hinduism is one of the most life affirming religions I know.” “Minsh” sent me on a spin I had almost forgotten.


When I was growing up, my father taught me two things. The first was according to the Gita, doing my duty (at the time duty equated studying and being very obedient to my elders). The second was that every action had a reaction. The law of Karma (which was to me do the first). It sounds religious but the only religious instruction we had was the discipline of sitting immobile for 15 minutes every day without saying a word. We had to concentrate on the middle of our foreheads until it ached, and blank out our minds thinking only of Lord Shiva. We had to allow thoughts to flow in and out without thinking about them until we were “floating in a sea of bliss”. For almost all of the 15 minutes my father would keep up a monologue of how we were to do all of this, to which the three of us would complain: “Shhh Daddy, you are not allowing us to concentrate. You are talking too much.”


So there I would sit day dreaming of a hero, a dress, a party. Undoubtedly my sister was thinking of the same things. My brother would, arms splayed, thumb and forefinger joined in the yogi position, examine his newly sprung muscles. We would giggle and then my father would get angry. At other times he would allow himself to smile. Then he would read the Gita in Sanskrit. Sometimes we would hear our mother reading the Quran in the next room and become mesmerised by the unlikely chorus of Sanskrit and Arabic. When the last omm was sounded we would leap up with uncharacteristic vitality to go off and do nothing again.


When we first came to Trinidad people would be shocked that I didn't know about this deity or that holy day, this ritual or that feast. India is a land of ancient ritual from a thousand sources. It’s just that we were not exposed to it. I was, and am, so ignorant of ritual that I would feel like a terrible representative of my mother country: “You mean you don’t know about flags after prayers? You sure you from India?” Or “You talking like a tourist!” after I enumerated on the virtues of eating off the fig leaf. (It’s hygienic, it’s practical, it’s biodegradable, it’s free.)


It was here I witnessed temple weddings - performed with the tradition I never saw, the palpitation of the tassa drum, and brides who dress in white - an exotic sight in India. The old India preserved in a miniature capsule combined with European style toasts, under tents held up by bamboo. The sweep of history and continents in one wedding ceremony. In India the only weddings I saw were performed in hotels and the one distraction was when the groom decided to arrive on a horse or an elephant which didn't happen very often.


We celebrated festivals - only not with so much reverence. Divali was spent lighting firecrackers (illegal here) and then the grown-ups would gamble (cards) all night. On Holi the colour would fly onto faces and white clothes. Some would be drenched by the tub of dyed water laid out under the trees at the Officers Mess in Bangalore.


We grew up with the influence of the British and Indian colour variety and chaos. We got rapped on our knuckles in darkened colonial houses from emaciated Anglo Indian piano teaches for getting notes to “Onward Christian Soldiers” wrong. And if it was Moharram outside our walls would be self flagellation of male Shiia Muslims beating their breasts to the refrain of “Hussan Hussein”. Then they would take water from our house to make jugs of jasmine scented barley sherbet and drink it like a palliative, their blood flowing under the Jamun tree, where its ripe purple fruit had already stained the ground with flesh bursting out of itself.


Forgive You


Like many colonial households we were made to read Jane Austen, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, and I was subject to Victorian homilies from time to time - “Be good sweet maid and let thy beauty shine” (perhaps this was wishful thinking because I was such an odd creature) - and scolding - “Are you truly repentant for your misdemeanors?” my mother would ask me as I stood squirming in front of her. “I cannot forgive you until you are.” I would repeat: “But I am repentant Mummy.” And this would go on until I realised my misdemeanor.


Army officers laughed and drank and flirted with women in the mess decorated with animal heads and guns and peons in white turbans, but everyone of them became officers and engineers because their mothers woke them up at 4 am in villages, towns and cities all over India with a glass of hot tea to study. Now married, most of them gave financial support to their parents and younger siblings.


There is the ingrained modesty of women in India. But I also recall one Holi, the sight of a laughing woman rising out of the tub of coloured water like an eastern Venus, her white Kurta bloodied - sensual even to our childish eyes.


There is pageantry mixed with strict adherence to ancient tradition and religion. So on Deshera on the Ram Leela Grounds in Delhi huge effigies of the demon king Ravana and his two siblings are burnt by shooting of fire emitting arrows by a person impersonating Lord Ram - showing the triumph of good over evil.


Minshall was speaking: “It is yin and yang. An ability to see discipline and the Bacchus of life all in one.” “That’s how it is with Carnival,” I reflected, bursting my lungs, struggling with the weights, delighted with my encounter with Minshall. The man with a fine sensibility and intellect, an artist of voluptuous, intricate and enormous talent. And so it must be some kind of extraordinary artistic third eye with which Minshall told me of his feeling for the Hindu god Shiva, of India’s sensual temple decorations, of the Shiva Ling, of spring festivals. Between leg presses I marvelled at the sweep of his mind, the way he sees the interconnection of continents and ages and comes up with one compelling image, “The abeer thrown in India becomes confetti in Europe.” My responses were inadequate, falling flat like damp firecrackers under the light of his eloquence, but he strikes an answering chord in me. Balancing between worlds, grafted on to the New World we here on this island can lay claim to all of it.

Of course I asked him if he was bringing out a band, and what did he think of school children having the entire week off to celebrate? And then all else blanked out - the neon gym, the heaving musclemen, the music. There was just his voice. He would not speak as a moralist or for the mothers who would be stuck for babysitters. He was speaking as a great artist would about his art.


He began: “When I gave a lecture some years ago to a group of young Americans I told them ‘On our island we do not have the resources or audience to provide a theatre season on West End or Broadway. In your culture it is the custom to pay money to see other people perform. In my country it is the custom for us to pay money to perform in an open space where the world may see you.’ At las’ lap the curtain falls, the play is over the show is done, life goes on. Within all the rituals the big ritual is that.


Upside Down


“As an artist in the mass seeking to understand its ancient origins my feeling is not religious but a sense of tradition hundreds of years old. There is something healthy and correct and true, in the business of celebration followed by silence and discipline. Part of that profundity is Dimanche Gras - going through to Mardi Gras and then the ashes of Wednesday. No matter what mas you play, which band, what song you’re singing, you have an incredible sense of ritual of which returning to the person you are on Wednesday is very much a part. The next day you go back to work, tired, feet still aching. You’ve turned the world upside down, it is as it was before and everything is in its place. A way of saying, ‘and now replenished, I continue.’

“In some way I feel it is important that young people experience this. The holiday can be given three days before, but make it after and you’ve destroyed something vital.” That was Minshall. I nodded in agreement.


On Ash Wednesday in an empty and cleaned Savannah there is a flash of pink or a scrap of silver being blown from pavement to bench and it brings the flush of remembered joy of the dance and the music and the movement. Then you listen to the quiet sound of an old language of the earth, and become a part of it.


Great artists like Minshall with uncanny presence point to the pattern in individual lives. They turn the chaos of life into art. For me he made sense of the times when as a child I was made to stay still and meditate when the world beckoned, when I was woken up to study at four in the morning, when I was told to read quietly, not play and the value of being taught of one’s duty, the knowledge that everything you do will come back to you in some way.


Those moments of reflection heightened my awareness of the lush Jamun with its purple fruit, the way the light reflected gold then white silver in the firecrackers, the pleasure of having a white orhni turn crimson with colour of Holi, spinning with joyous childish shrieks to music. The abundance of it all. Without the silence there is no creativity. Only chaos followed by chaos.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur