The stark contrasts in life

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A photographer would perhaps understand the role of contrast in a picture. Without contrast, the picture would just be a color that in itself, is meaningless. A picture is all about how one color makes a transition into another…how one texture transforms into another….how brightness fades away into the darkness. There are sharp and blur contrasts, but it is to these contrasts that our mind is sensitive.

And so, contrast is the life of a picture.

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And it is not just with pictures, but with everything in matter. We store into our brain a world of contrasts-silence as opposed to noise, happiness as opposed to pain, tranquility as opposed to turbulence, beauty as opposed to ugliness. The latter is particularly important in artistic brains, for they have striking ability at defining beauty, in a holistic sense. Obviously, we differ in our sensitivity to this contrast. For some, shades of red make no difference while others are sensitive to an entire spectrum of red. It is this degree of sensitivity which correlates with how alive we feel.
And it is the discrimination of contrasts that we are losing, thanks to the pace of technology.

Technology has brought into our lives two dimensions- infinity and range. It has blurred contrasts as there is continuous access to what the brain qualifies as ‘reward’. I remember a friend mentioning how he was grateful to the internet because it helped him discover many like-minded people he could relate to. That is true, but the only problem is that when we meet ‘many’ like-minded people, the experience loses its value. In a confined and slow-paced world, the ‘few’ like-minded people we discover would have immense value for us, and they would be irreplaceable. Also, we would probably explore many facets of our own selves, thanks to the diversity of people we are forced to acquaint with. We would often be compelled to explore every person in our life to whatever depth is possible, and grow in a holistic sense.

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When we lose sensitivity on account of the fast pace of interactions with innumerable people, we start seeking something higher coz the brain loses its contrast perception.
A state of numbness induced by abundance.
Our needs from life become very complex and insatiable coz we are in an eternal hunt to seek and preserve the contrasts that are vital to make us feel alive. A point off-track is that it also becomes an escape route when we battle with our relationships in real life; we don’t choose to deal with them.

The treasures are all in the lower brain (the limbic system particularly). It is a brain which is ancient, deeply perceptive and instinctive. Like animals and birds that can sense a storm much before it arrives…that become uncomfortable at the slightest unfamiliarity in their surroundings…that respond from instinct. Some of us have retained this ability at perception. Into this brain, we store perceptions from the world- what moves us, is stored deeper into memory. So in this brain, we have a world, tagged with emotions. That is the first step in giving ‘life’ to inanimate matter.

As the higher brain (cerebral cortex) evolved, awareness levels increased. For more and more of this emotion-tagged world was brought into consciousness. The awareness of the contrast between what our lower brain qualified as happiness and sadness, emptiness and fulfilment, beautiful and ugly, made our experiences rich and added value to them. And from this awareness, we learnt to create.

As long as we have the space to feel, perceive and then process, life will be rich. The tragedy is that the pace of life has increased to a point where we are losing this space. Thoughts are ahead of our perceptions. So much so that our higher brain often suppresses this beautiful lower brain. In the process, we will gradually lose most of it to ‘evolution’.
The next era is for mental illnesses, for the cortex-lower brain ratio will pose serious problems. So psychiatry will be a lucrative career.
And finally, there will be extinction of mental illnesses as humans evolve into robots, with a cerebral cortex that will take over completely.  Highest degree of awareness. Just that it will be awareness of ‘lifelessness’!

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To those who shall carry the burden of my coffin

Thanks to a dear friend, I discovered this beautiful piece by poet A. Ayyappan. Perhaps we all aspire to make the transition from life to death through a soul that has been touched by the deep philosophy of love- a flower whose essence is immortal.

The poem:

To those who shall carry the burden of my coffin,
I reveal a secret not mentioned in my will….
There shall be a flower in the place of my heart-
The deep philosophy of love gifted to me by her
in those days of curiosity….
Before you bury my body,
Pluck this flower from my heart….
Cover my face with its petals….
Place a petal on my pale hands bare of their lines…
I wish to return through this flower!
It may be impossible to bare this truth
At the hour of death….
Through the cold water you sprinkle on my body…
The flower may be washed off into my death….
If not, leave my coffin undraped….
For now my friends are the corpses…..

When did humanity alienate from art?

Nothing perhaps sums up the true purpose of art as eloquently as this essay on ONV Kurup. Says the author:
The poet always strives to empower poetry, enabling it to attend to the spiritual needs of the succeeding generations of sensitive souls. For this, he takes special care to ensure that each of his poems is an inquiry into new realms of aesthetic experience.

The author quotes ONV:
Humanity is the same everywhere, bonded together by common dreams, joy, grief and suffering. We live life intensely, feeling everything intensely. Everything that happens around is a poet’s concern. We sleep with a nightmare hovering above us every night. The felling of a tree or a bomb explosion or a rape, be it of a woman or of Mother Earth, causes a commotion, an upheaval in my mind. As I see it, my job is to build a bridge that would link this shore of pain, strife and thralldom to that other one of freedom…. If my song can create some ripple, somewhere, I will feel proud, honoured and privileged.

In the past, this was the primary purpose of art and an artist’s primary responsibility was towards sustaining this purpose. Thanks to the low profile of media back then, with technology a safe distance away, an artist had his space- a space that is vital to create art. I think of my favourite authors, film makers and musicians- they were not celebrities; they were one among us. They were our voices- the voices of our exhilaration, angst and pain. In their silence and solitude, they created magic from the richness of human experience. Through their art, they helped us see the immense beauty in our own souls…the worth in our own selves…the meaning in all our struggles. Their creation was uninfluenced by the superfluous tastes of a diverse audience. They created from the core of humanity so that each one of us could read our own stories in their works of art. At the end, their work lifted us in spirit and aspired towards the creation of a better world- a world erected on principles of humanity.

Emotions and experiences are too deep for instant translation. Like fruits that need time to ripen, emotions need time- to percolate deep, to mature, and to brim. Only then does true art flow out.
The tragedy of the modern world is that art has been hit by technology, media and market. The pressure to create number/quantity drowns the true purpose of art.
Today, we cater to an infinite and diverse audience, on a day to day ( or even minute to minute) basis. It is our artistic space that we lose in the process, for we let the audience influence us in our creation, corrupting its originality, diluting its aesthetics and depth. There is the unconscious urge within us to maintain a certain pace of creation, and derive instant pleasure with the responses we obtain. We do not wait to feel and assimilate from life. We create from the intensity of our fleeting emotions. We are in a hurry to shift from one emotion to the next, without allowing a primary emotion to percolate, build up, consolidate and mature. And so, we fail in our primary responsibility as an artist, without realizing it. We create art that can easily be substituted and that will fade with time. Not art that speaks across time and space.

The artist has also finally entered the domain of goal-directed behaviour, which ruins the cause of art and dilutes standards. With the ocean of work that is launched in the name of art ( everybody is a writer or photographer or some sort of artist today!), the true artist has a tough job swimming across this ocean to even get his art noticed. And so, the artist is lost in the pursuit for validation of his work.
With an audience that no longer has the time or space to read at length, or process depth, the artist’s struggle is enormous, for he is torn between the need to remain true to his instinct and to reach out.

Also, within the artist community, there is none of the support/encouragement that was the norm in the past. An artist in those days had the goodness and ability to recognize the creative caliber of a fellow human being…to support and encourage him…to mentor him and propel him towards his artistic domain. But the artists of today have no interest in fellow-artists (save for vested interests). The commitment is no longer to the cause of art, but to the self-directed outcome of it. Established artists do nothing about this, for they too invest their time/energy in endeavours that ‘enrich’ their own lives- an enrichment distant from all humanitarian causes.
Many ask- ‘So what?’
To which I shall quote my friend:
We live as if trapped inside a Sunday supplement: obsessed with fame, fashion and the three dreary staples of middle class conversation: recipes, renovations and partying at resorts. Anything but the topic that demands our real attention!”

Udyanapalakan

I must have watched this movie over ten times in the last couple of weeks. Lohithadas’s characters have always been ingrained in the culture of Kerala. The simplicity and modesty that masks the profundity of their souls, the resilience that masks their vulnerability, their profound ability to love, masking the loveless void in their own lives….these aspects of his characters endeared them to us….made them immensely lovable. Though it is heartening to see the current malayalam movies redefining themselves from what they had stooped to, and raising the bar in terms of plots, acting skills and cinematography, the depth and diversity of characters and the richness of language is still lacking. Just as is the case with life in these times. After all, art mimics life. Lohithadas had that profound ability at introducing us to those beautiful characters that defined raw human nature, bringing to visibility its infinite layers beneath which a soul throbbed and gleamed in all its beauty.

Sudhakaran Nair is one such character. An ex-military jawan, who has injured his leg in a war and therefore limps as he walks, is the central character of this movie. His love for gardens is the backdrop of this movie.
Sudhakaran Nair’s love for gardens is a madness- a passion that defines his very existence. He puts his heart and soul into it, and creates a masterpiece of a garden, that is the talk of the village. It is a garden that has a soul- a soul in which Sudhakaran Nair perceives his own soul. The flowers in his garden are extensions of his soul, and he is immensely pained when the villagers steal his flowers or request him for flowers on the occasion of weddings and funerals. To him, the flower is rooted into its mother plant in an inseparable bonding- one that is painful to severe. But the children humour themselves by stealing flowers from his garden and mocking his limp.

To the simple minds of the village folk, Sudhakaran Nair’s passion is an eccentricity. And yet, the landscape of rural life accommodates this eccentricity with ease. The movie introduces us to the numerous characters who are an integral and inseparable part of his life, irrespective of the degree of intimacy. The invisible thread of emotions that bind human beings together into mutual interdependance, is portrayed with sensitivity. Lohithadas paints a picture of human sentiments, so real that it has not the slightest trait of sentimentality. To retain the sublime tone of human emotions- to say without really saying it, is an art, and our directors and story writers did it with brilliance in the past.

Sudhakaran Nair allows himself the liberty to express his anger when the children steal flowers, to express his hurt when his intimate friend brings up the insensitivity of his siblings, to express his dissent to his mother when she makes impulsive remarks, but to the old couple at Mullassery, he is always polite and respectful.

The movie introduces us to Ammu, the pampered grand daughter at Mullassery. Yet again, the character sketch is brilliant. Ammu- full of life, full of childish mischief and a bundle of pranks up her sleeve. It is evident that she is a pampered and spoilt brat. But Ammu surprises us eventually by revealing beneath her high-spiritedness a deep void that she tries to persistently fill. Ammu’s ability to perceive and comprehend is far ahead of her age, and her courage to stand by her beliefs and perspectives is commendable. Ammu finds in Sudhakaran Nair all the ingredients that fill the void in her life- a father’s affection, a brother’s companionship, a husband’s security and a lover’s playful innocence. She sees the goodness and richness of his soul that spills into his creation- his garden. His presence in her life gives her an unspoken reassurance that she has never felt before. The void in her life brings to light the abundance in Sudhakaran Nair’s personality. It is not his age or his limp or his eccentricity that she sees; she perceives the depth of his companionship, his ability to love and the goodness of his soul.

The plot revolves around how two people develop an intimate relationship, driven by a mutual need for warmth and companionship. Two souls who have silently endured pain over years, who have learnt to accept it, who have learnt to harness it deep within- where it wouldn’t throb visibly, are brought together by destiny. They recognize each other’s throbbing and allow it to surface.

The climax is the strength of the movie, for it leaves the deepest impact. While we witness the unfolding of a love that erases all questions of viability in our minds, Sudhakaran Nair surprises us by stepping back from the decision of marriage. Deep within, he fears that Ammu is too young and may outgrow this liking when she is older. There is this unanswered question in his mind and in our minds- Much as Ammu’s love is sincere and genuine at this point in time, will it exhaust itself as time goes by, and she comes in closer contact with the reality of his life and his imperfections? Will one void abate only to be replaced by another? The question lingers….without an answer.

My favourite dialogues from the movie:
” Nothing is ever a substitute for anything.”
Handing her a rose from his garden, he says, ” This is my soul. Preserve it. Like my life, the petals will wither away. But keep the memory- it will always be fragrant.”
“Each of our lives has a purpose. Perhaps, the purpose of my life is to tend to this garden. Perhaps the purpose of your life is to be happily married to that young doctor.”

The pain-creativity connection

Of all the emotions we are endowed with, nature treats pain as the most important emotion because it is of survival value. Pain is one of the oldest emotions in the scheme of evolution and the nervous system is so designed that it prioritizes pain perception and alerts the brain to pain signals, triggering the necessary approach/avoidance response, because pain translates to a survival threat.

Of course, in lower animals, physical pain is the dominant component of pain. But with evolution, pain has also evolved into a more complex emotion, with physical and mental components.

Happiness (reward) is an emotion that abates spontaneously. We do not make a voluntary effort to escape from happy states. It abates spontaneously so that we continue our quest, defining newer motives and goals. This propels us forward. If not, life would lose its meaning.

However, when it comes to pain, pain does not abate spontaneously. Be it physical or mental pain, the very design of the nervous system is such that it will never let us adapt to the pain until we have removed the source of pain. And so, it is up to us to act and either approach or escape this pain. Because we qualify it as unpleasant, we are forced to find a way out. The drive to rescue ourselves from pain is such a primitive and strong drive that we summon our deepest resources to deal with pain. The arousal effect on the brain (especially the primitive, lower brain) is so strong that it will often succeed in retrieving from our unconscious (lower brain) resources that are made accessible to consciousness (cerebral cortex).

The unconscious of ‘artists’ is often an abyss into which an entire universe is tucked in from the world outside- a universe with abundant beauty. The cortex now translates these resources into insightful and meaningful data. And thus, the artist takes new paths and stumbles on new discoveries, born out of the dire necessity to relieve himself of the depth of the pain he feels. And that is why they say the greatest works of art are the result of the deepest pain. Simply because nature endows pain the ability to create the strongest drive/motivation within us.

Happiness has its essential role, no doubt. It is indeed the happiness we have tucked in that briefly contrasts with the deep pain we feel and translates into art. The depth of the pain we feel suddenly makes us sensitive to this contrast and to the abundance in that little drop of happiness, so that we finally learn to translate its true value in words or whatever our medium of art may be. Like the tiny glow of a firefly, whose tiny flicker becomes the light of the sun in the darkness of a night where there is no moon, there are no stars and there are no lamps or lanterns!