Shattering Glass Ceilings!

A few days back, this girl, out of nowhere, reached out to me on social media, said she was a young artist, only just beginning her journey of discovering the artist within her. I was intrigued, and as is usually the case, immediately set-up a meeting at a mutually convenient time; anything I can do to help, guide, mentor someone is always a priority. She was to bring me an original Madhubani Painting of hers, along with some hand-painted Post Cards. I was excited.

However, nothing could quite have prepared me for the amazing woman I eventually met. Sapna Mahto, unassuming yet confident, humble yet immensely gifted and creative; our half hour meeting has left such an indelible impact on me, I just had to share her story with all of you.

Sapna is a Visuals Arts Graduate from Rajasthan University. She is venturing into the world of Art through her limited yet beautifully conceived repertoire of Madhubani Paintings. In order to preserve the heritage of her origins, she also paints these lovely Madhubani motifs on Journal & Diary Covers and Postcards. She is also working as a Graphic Designer in a reputed Digital Communications Agency. And she happens to be, the daughter of someone who works as domestic help! A significant piece of information that she delivered to me, most nonchalantly!

Based on that last, tiny truth about Sapna; one could undeniably say that she has shattered many glass ceilings. What strikes you more though, is the ease with which she wears her society-imposed ‘tag’. That she has, as if with a single brush-stroke, erased the stigma that you and I often unconsciously harbour, a specific, prejudiced way in which we ‘perceive’ certain communities. It is this enviable, admirable, effortless, effervescence, an inner light in this young woman that shines forth, and makes the darkness of societal bigotry, just pale into oblivion. And it is precisely this quality of Sapna’s that had a profound effect on me.

We spend a large part of our lives just worrying about how we are perceived by the world. We go to immeasurable lengths to come across a ‘certain’ way. Especially in India, peoples’ concerns largely centre on ‘where one is from’, ‘what family one belongs to’; particularly in a small city like Jaipur, NOT belonging to the ‘right’ kind of family can spell immediate social doom. It is terribly ironic that we, the ones who hardly ‘accept’, are then so concerned with being accepted into a city’s elite. While the hoi polloi toils away at the everyday grind, our burdens seem to be much more banal – did I go the right school? Did I wear the right outfit? Was I noticed at that party?

Our shallow worries, of which I am as guilty as the next person, make me feel ashamed of myself, when I meet someone like Sapna Mahto. What this young woman has endured, battled, conquered, and triumphed, are circumstances we cannot even begin to fathom.

Whether we admit it or not, most of us do not see the less-fortunate, coming up. We go about our lives so wrapped up in our own heads and messes that we rarely pause to think of the lives of the people who serve us, who cook and bring us our daily bread. By consequence, there is little or no mind space for their children. They play with our kids but even that is disallowed beyond a certain point because we fear that it will either ‘spoil’ or dilute our own, or will be seen by someone and secretly ,or openly, be derided.

Meeting with Sapna has literally been an awakening for me. It has put so much prejudice I have seen within my own family, into perspective. It has made me immensely proud as an Indian, as a citizen of this city, and as an Educator who seeks to espouse an ethos of equality among his students. I have learned so many lessons, and I can only say, that more power to Sapna. She has shattered ceilings, provoked thought, inspired me, and filled me with her eternal glow.

Writer OR Author?

The debate rages on… Who is a writer? And who is an author? The simplistic definition is that a writer is someone who writes for others. An author, someone who writes original work for himself or herself. Is it really that black and white though?

Over time I’ve come to form a notion of what really makes an author. If we were to broaden the scope of this question, what really makes an Artist? This is where things become rather interesting, and seemingly contradictory. Because in my view, one can have a writer who is a better ‘artist’ than an author! Let me explain.

There are many people who have honed and refined their craft to within a degree of perfection. A writer who can fill pages with lyrical verse with his eyes shut. An actor who can perform the perfect shot take after take without a shred of rehearsal. And a musician who can soar to dizzying heights of effortless performance. The question is, does that stir your soul as a reader, watcher or listener?

I think therein lies the answer. I have had the good fortune of experiencing all three – brilliant writers, prolific actors and consummate musicians and I’ve come away, often times, completely and utterly, unmoved! That may sound surprising and incongruous but it has happened. And each time I have tried to analyse why, I’ve got the same answer from within. There was something missing despite the ‘perfection’. The artist’s unique, individualistic, peculiar, strong, opinionated voice. A differentiated style, stage-play, or sound, whichever the case, that makes that person, even if a touch flawed technically, memorable. A rawness and originality that tugs at one’s insides, makes one uncomfortable, ecstatic, enraged, excited, depressed, all at the same time. Something that truly hits ‘the right notes’ – within the audience.

Let me exemplify what I am on about. Amid the deluge of Bollywood films that are made and released each year, how many stand out? How many films would we instantly be able to identify as belonging to a specific director? I defy anyone to name more than three or four. Why is that? Because as beautiful and perfect as they all might have started ‘looking’ these days, films, despite being a visual medium, are formulaic. They all look identical. To think of a director’s unique style that stands out, one will really have to think hard and then a name like Wes Anderson (Life Aquatic, Fantastic Mr.Fox, Rushmore etc) or Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman, The Revenant) might come to mind. Closer home in India, possibly Abhishek Chaubey (Ishquiya, Udta Punjab) or Anurag Kashyap.

Same is the case I’m afraid with books and music. Too few, too far. And before you think this is some tirade on art vs commercial, it isn’t. Certainly, Jagjit Singh cannot be considered ‘alternative’ or ‘parallel’. Or a Michael Jackson be deemed ‘non-commercial’. But even in the mainstream, it is just so terribly rare to come across a genuine, fresh, clutter-breaking voice!

An artist then, to my mind, is someone who, with all his or her flaws and limitations, reaches into you and makes you sit up. Because art isn’t always about perfect proportions, language or expression. Art is art. Art is personal, beautifully blemished self-expression. And that is why, who is a writer, and who is an author, will remain an eternally unanswered question!