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And then they saw light

As more and more international expatriates move to India, our festivals become more and more multicultural. Two foreign women tell us how they discovered Diwali.

art and culture Updated: Oct 30, 2010 19:31 IST
Sumati Mehrishi
Sumati Mehrishi
Hindustan Times

As more and more international expatriates move to India, our festivals become more and more multicultural. Two foreign women tell us how they discovered Diwali.

The deity & the devout

Sharon Lowen

Odissi exponent

He sits like a humble but self-sufficient patriarch. There’s a mouse at his feet, nibbling on a laddoo. The sight makes your stomach rumble for Diwali sweets. There are three faces instead of the usual one, or five or eight. So there are three trunks – safely curled in the auspicious left direction – in this weighty bronze sculpture depicting Lord Ganesha in Odissi and Chhau exponent Sharon Lowen’s living space.

Sharon LowenThere is a striking sharpness to the roundedness of the sculpture. A rhythm in its bends and curves – the kind that gives the dance forms Odissi and Chhau their grammar and exterior. So when Lowen stands next to the Ganesha sculpture with the same motherly glint in her eyes as that of female deities in Indian calendar art, she seems like a devout goddess Lakshmi – a fitting match to Ganesha.

Lowen was brought up in Detroit, USA, and came to India on a scholarship after a masters’ degree at the University of Michigan. In the 25 years she’s lived here, she’s been convinced about the belief that women are a metaphorical representation of goddess Lakshmi – the goddess of fortune, wealth and prosperity who is worshipped with lord Ganesha on Diwali.

“There has to be something exceptionally special about this goddess,” says Lowen. “I believe she is meant to bring you total prosperity – that of the inner self. She belongs to the woman of the house more than anyone else. The fact that Lakshmi is worshipped on Diwali makes her sacred in a very different way.”

Her first memory of a Diwali celebration in India is a hole burnt in her favourite sari. “My parents were great friends with the well-known artists Himmat Shah and Shanti Dave,” Lowen recalls. “We were celebrating Diwali together. Everyone got involved with the fireworks, but I huddled in a corner because I was scared of crackers. Funnily, by the end of it, I was the only one with a hole burnt in my sari. When you fear something, it really happens to you.”

On Diwali, the sculpture of Ganesha becomes the focus of celebrations for Lowen and her friends. As her neighbourhood dazzles with the deafening glitter of crackers, they huddle together for a small worship session, marked with an aarti to invoke the troubleshooter in lord Ganesha.

“In the ’80s, I would have my daughter Tara’s school friends and their parents come home for Diwali,” says Lowen. “They would burn crackers till late at night. Now, friends like artist Naresh Kapuria join me to perform an aarti. We sit on the terrace watching the firecrackers outside and chat. And when everyone’s off, I observe vispashna Diwali. The lamps all lit, the crackers easing off… it’s beautiful connecting with the spiritual self in you.”

Lowen doesn’t like playing cards, something that’s a ritual with many families on Diwali. She doesn’t even like Diwali sweets – apparently this is just one area where Indianness has failed to rub into her.

“For a huge part of my 25 years here, I lived near Bengali Market in Delhi (an area famous for its sweet shops), but I still haven’t developed a sweet tooth the Indian way. But I love making sandesh,” she says.

You won’t see Lowen posing with her Ganesha sculpture. She likes building her own metaphors around it, with the coil and the recoil of the fingers, an arm stretched, and the torso bent into a flowing arched leg – valuable trinkets from the Odissi grammar.

Lakshmi isn’t really represented in the Indian performing arts with the same frequency and fervor as Durga, Kali, Saraswati – even Radha, Draupadi, Meera and Satyabhama (one of Lord Krishna’s wives). Why?

“Lakshmi is meant to be worshipped on the special occasion of Diwali,” says Lowen. “So a performance regardless of timing doesn’t really make aesthetic sense. I have performed ‘Lakshmi Moksha’ in Odissi. But considering that Lakshmi is a form of shakti, there is something exceptionally spiritually energising about representing her in dance.”

As you leave, your eyes fall upon a beautiful wooden wall hanging painted by the tongue-in-cheek Naresh Kapuria. It reads, “Sharon Ka Ghar. Tara Ka Ghar.” If it’s a deity that transforms a house into a traditional “prosperous” Indian home, Lowen is nowhere short of being one herself.

Between bombs and badaam barfi
Lesleigh Goldberg
Artist, sculptor, photographer
It may have sounded like tons of rubble shooting up into the skies. Or it may have sounded worse. Lesleigh Goldberg, an American artist and photographer living in the Nizamuddin area of Delhi cannot really describe the sound of the fireworks used at the recent Commonwealth Games. But it’s clear from her facial expressions. The magnificent neon bursts of the events that helped India spark its success stories to the west, have left the westerner in Goldberg saturated and quite unimpressed.

So she is already dreading the sound of Diwali crackers and their heart-sinking booms. Laughing, she says, “I hope Diwali isn’t really loud here in Nizamuddin. The sounds of the CWG fireworks haven’t left me asking for more.”

Four years ago, Goldberg moved from France to India with her partner. Diwali, back then, was barely more than an opportunity to help her better observe the sights, sounds and smells in her South Delhi neighbourhood. There is something essentially touristy about the way Goldberg says she would stop over at shops or perceive daily Indian life scenes.

“Though the constant anti-terror and security announcements can be nerve-wracking, being at Lajpat Nagar (a major shopping area in Delhi) helps you feel the festival completely,” she says. “During the first Diwali of my stay, I avoided going to crowded places – scared of the horror stories of the pre-Diwali bomb blasts of 2006. Even after that, I preferred venturing out on the days preceding Diwali.”

Brought up in Denver, US, Goldberg says she is French at heart. “I had always wanted to get out of Denver, and later, the United States. France is home. My partner and I separated during our stay in India. I stayed on. So I sometimes believe that bringing me to India and helping me know this beautiful and culturally rich country was one of his purposes.”

Today, Goldberg’s house is warming up with candles and oil lamps. In her living space, which has bubble-wrapped works resting lazily against each other as they wait to be ferried to her first exhibition in February, Goldberg is making space for her Indian friends and their families.

“I really prefer being friends with Indians. Westerners don’t interest me much at the moment. Plus, I don’t have much time on my hands. My work demands solitude and I can’t visit people often. So I would love to spend my limited time trying to know Indian families, their cultural sensibilities and values.”

She prefers almond barfi and raisins to sweetmeats decorated with ‘silver foil’ (the infamous chaandi vark). But Goldberg thinks she needs to work on her wick-fixing skills for the oil lamps. After all, making wicks can take even the most seasoned desi Diwali specialist for a ride.

“Diwali has a proximity to Christmas in a lot of ways,” she says. “It brings families and friends together. But the most interesting aspects about Indian festivals are related to or rooted in deities, the gods and goddesses. They are a multi-faceted bunch. Also, I understand that the prosperity goddess Lakshmi brings with her is not about money alone.”

The artist’s favourite subject is the Navarasas, the nine essences. In her debut exhibition, she will bring the nine muses that inspire the creation of literature and art in Grecian mythology together with the Navarasas. But something else about her work makes you feel she may not sign out of India very soon. Her ceramic sculptures – shattering and painful – are about the drubbing of women through the ages. Female foeticide is one chapter in this representation.

Diwali and its association with goddess Lakshmi relieves Goldberg of the dreariness of the symbols in her work. But the worshipping of a female deity in the land of female foeticide leaves her confused. Maybe a shot of badam barfi could help toss confusion aside, at least temporarily.

First Published: Oct 29, 2010 15:28 IST