Ways of joining

Essays, India

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I have been thinking a lot about skills. About how they take time to learn, and there is no way around that. There are so many hand skills here; people making everyday, useful items by hand. In the market there are piles and piles of small clay bowls for incense, and outside temples there are huge baskets filled with stringed flowers. Everything is arranged beautifully; useful, and temporary. The flowers last perhaps a day, and are remade all over again. They are made and remade by women (as far as I have seen) sitting on the street, with baskets of pinks, whites and bright oranges. Flowers adorn womens hair and gods in temples. After my sweetheart bought me a string of these, I became fascinated with how they are tied together. I asked Suresh if someone would teach me how to do the tying. Mona, his housekeeper said yes, and brought flowers and string.
We sat outside in the shade, flowers between us. Her small and nimble fingers started spinning like the wind, while my mind tried to work out what it was she was doing. She showed me. She showed me again. My fingers were clumsy; unable to bend or move. My mind was in my hands, telling me how hard it was. I think it’s always like this with a skill. The mind tries to understand it, but that is not where it is learnt. When I have learnt drumming, it is like this. Listen, watch, repeat. Follow with the hands. As soon as the mind gets involved, saying “whoah it’s so fast”, I can’t do it any more. Once I had sort of grasped the idea, I tried to let my hands do the work. I watched how confident her movements were, and tried to fake it till I made it; just breathing into my hnds and letting them pretend they knew what they were doing. That made it go easier, like the flowers were more comfortable with a firm grip. But still, I was useless. Clumsy and slow, but determined. She spins them together as if the wind is on her side, tying and pressing so that there are no gaps at all. Mine flop and slump, falling off after a few seconds because I haven’t been able to pull them tight at the same time as holding them, at the same time as tying the knot.
And I love it. It is humbling, and releasing. I am an unskilled person from somewhere else; unskilled at this thing. She is kind. She tells me to practise on newspaper, and shows me how to fold it. Then she tells me that when she first learnt, she spent three days doing it.
This is how I resolve my approach to my project. The reality is, I don’t belong here. I am transient and this is not my country. I spent the first week frozen in fear about repeating an ugly colonial pattern of taking from other cultures and claiming it as ones own. I don’t want to just use what is here to make myself look good. I don’t want to try and comment on a culture which is not my own; one which is ancient and complicated and which I know so little about. I am comfortable listening, looking, taking in. I am uncomfortable being asked what I think. I don’t want to try and reduce anything I see here. India is many, and I love being in a position of nowhere firm, everything shifting.
But I do want to communicate, and connect. Three months is too long just to look, I have to get involved. I keep trying, and making. Most of all, I want to connect with women. I want to be somehow accepted. I feel so grateful when women smile at me on the street. After a few days, when I am feeling deeply homesick and anxious, Mona comes upstairs to my studio to visit. She comes in, looks at everything, then starts picking up materials and showing me how to use them. She draws on the floor these patterns which are drawn in a kind of chalk dust, for blessing, good luck, good fortune. This is my understanding so far. They grow from the middle and spread out across pavements and doorsteps, based on lotus forms sometimes, so related to the womb, to women, to the mother goddess I am told. She draws swiftly and easily. I drip dust from my hand in clumps. But together we make something which I think is pretty beautiful. Part lotus, part body, and all I really care about is that we did it together. We tie some flowers together, and I finally work out the part I’ve been doing backwards. I feel so happy, delighted, and I sit and string flowers for ages. We’re joined by another artist, who translates for me and tells me that Mona says she likes my work. I’m so surprised, like astounded. I realise how much fear I have, that what I’m doing is not ok. I think this is pretty common for artists, but when I am working in another culture, the sense is heightened with awareness of so much history and abuse of culture by white colonisation. The relief I have at hearing this is palpable; my shoulders drop as I ask, ‘but even though it is so messy?’ Yes comes the reply, because it is messy, this is why she likes it.
I know that the answer is always through the materials, through making, and a dear artist friend reminds me of this. The flower tying shows me that this clumsiness, this trying, this shonky version of something which people here are so skilled at, is my way of making here. I am not an expert. I am learning.
The three of us sit, tying together. I realise how lonely I have felt; that this is the kind of atelier I want. She talks about how it reminds her of her grandmother; says she can hear her, telling her needs to get better at these things. They are female skills and maybe we are always and never good enough at those. It feels like that’s a part of being female everywhere; that we are never doing it quite perfectly, and always being watched to see how hard we are trying. Making things with these women is a little space where those things can come up, over hand work, over and under and back the other way than I thought it was.
I want to make my own kind of offering towards these incredible skills which I see everywhere. Skills which are a part of life. Skills which do not make people rich. Skills which are hard to learn, and essential to life. To join together, beautify, bless, carry and build.

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