Light Of A Life By Gayatri Jayaraman

Nov 11, 2021, 17:42 IST

Gayatri

Light Will Guide You Home
For Healthntrends’s 62nd anniversary, we got some of our favourite authors and poets to share their interpretation of light.

Gayatri JayaramanGayatri Jayaraman

Formerly with Healthntrends, Gayatri Jayaraman is a mind-body-spirit therapist. She is the founder of Shamah and LOGOS, alignment practices based in Mumbai. She has written two books – Anitya and Sit Your Self Down – A Novice’s Journey into the Heart of Vipassana.

The artist woke up in the stil de grain of the morning and lay there looking out of the window till the light had stained the day a monk’s gamboge. He lay perfectly still, considering the fact that this birthday might be his last one. The sky was cornsilk by the time the attendant came by to sit him up. He asked to visit the chapel. This would mean he would forego his habitual sitting. Many of the arrangements the attendant had spent the morning making, like arranging his paints and implements to his peculiar specifications, had now been rendered unnecessary. She conveyed this with a cursory pause in her by-now ritualised indifference. She pursed her lips and continued as before. He was momentarily embarrassed.

He was so old by now the atrophying fingers of his left hand could only retrace the swirls of his mind and failing eyesight on the canvas. Other forms and figures had dropped out of his cognitive framework. He saw them, but as irrelevant as a grill on a window that ceases to impose upon the everyday landscape just beyond. What the rest of his body felt, knew, drew upon, exuded, was extraneous to his fingers, which had retracted into a reclusive ecosystem of their own. He found himself locked on the outside of its orbit and was caught in the paradox of having to trust them with his art even as they failed his body repeatedly. He now needed another, an assistant, a well-wisher, a sponsor, a patron, a visiting fan, to wipe the drool that seeped out of the side of his mouth with a handkerchief, to lift him from and into his chair, or to guide him to the toilet. He had now become the shadow to the light in his paintings, a foil to whom he once was. He himself a play of impulse and indifference. He had forgotten if he was a Muslim, a Hindu, a Christian, and which denomination if at all he was (of) any of these. He was not an atheist, of this he was sure for he retained some memory of a well-lived life and, in these times, even he knew, it was surely evidence of a benevolent god.

Gayatri
Image: Shutterstock, for representational purpose only

“Chapel,” he had spluttered into his attendant’s face. The word fell off his sagging lips and turned into marbles that rolled along the ground and under the bed no matter how hard he tried to shoot them out like arrows. He had to repeat it a couple of times before she nodded at him in comprehension. He wondered how many of them lay under the bed now and whether they had cat’s eyes or taffy swirls, glistening in the dark.

There were visitors already waiting in the corridor with bouquets of flowers and gift-wrapped books, shawls and plaques, prints of his own works for him to sign. He shut his eyes, bored, and gesticulated at them to make way as he went, leaving his patron to apologise profusely. He chuckled to himself in passing and they attributed it to the onset of a gentle senility. When really it was an exasperation at this crew who had become, somehow, in the years of his not knowing too much anymore about the world that encircled him, the managers of his broken trust, executors of his unspoken will, and the zoo visitors who bought peanuts at the gallery to see if there was any drive left in the old monkey. It was Easter and the church was crowded because they had picked the one that was also the archdiocese. It wasn’t the quiet chapel among the trees high up in the alps of his youth that he remembered trekking over the thigh-high snow to reach, but it would do. It would do for reasons other than those they had chosen it for. They chose it because it was a very important church that would play host to the very important man’s birthday on a very important day of the year. Yet, he was only self important enough to insist on being taken there and once there, being wheeled to the very front of the congregation. Daring them to break their contemplative silence to ask a man in a wheelchair to move discreetly to the side. He made faces to make them turn him this way and that until his wheelchair was angled just right. He sat between the rows of pews down the central aisle but at a declination such that those who wished could scrape past him without too much inconvenience. His attendant positioned herself on the corner of the pew next to him, almost behind him, sitting with her hands neatly folded in her lap. In this position he was in the direct line of sight of the eyes of Christ as he wept into his left shoulder. Though he was not sure on this day who was consoling whom. Even so, he did not feel very important at all. He just leveraged the importance they attributed him to have his way. He knew the difference between the two.

light
Image: Shutterstock, for representational purpose only

He sat hunched like a school boy awaiting his favourite teacher’s discourse, excited and propitious, his fingers clasped together over the government issue shawl on his knees, put there to hide his colostomy bag. He looked around once or twice and watched with absorption as the great prayer hall built over one hundred years ago filled up. He tilted his head to listen to the assembly of the choir in the balcony behind him. How the mommies and the daddies positioned the children between them like bookends as though one might otherwise fall off and be lost. He recalled all the chapels he had prayed in that had been older than this one. They were unostentatious, quieter and less frequented. The congregation comprised a few villagers with their spouse of decades, children and grandchildren come to visit over the holidays, neighbours in barely nodding acquaintance that was sufficient relativity between their far flung cottages, dairy farms and woodland estates. He missed the agreeability of sparseness. Stone walls held together with centuries-old clay smoothed over by the still visible palm impresses of workmen whose names no one had ever written down or would ever dig up. In the most intimate moment of contemplation they were held in collective disjointedness. What they had bowed to together and not at all in their minds. Where society came apart at its seams. When they stood separated by their tranquility, the light poured in from the skylights and filled in their gaps.

To anyone standing at the back of the great prayer hall now, he seemed to be bowing his shoulders in humility and prayer. When really, he had only ever relinquished himself to preparation. Even as his vision waned and his hands trembled, his skin was acquiring the sheen of mother-of-pearl and the pallor of onion tunic. He examined his hands now and thought of the lifetime of canvases they had crafted out of their own volition. He felt more like their appendage now than anything they were to him. He felt awed by them, beholden for having been chosen, protected even by their certainty. The more he looked at them, depleted and elongated, the more he saw in them beings apart from himself. Pale dogwood and russet brown flecks splattered his forearms and the frail network of teal veins that bulged through their fulvous sheath. He watched the light bounce off his arm. It was only a matter of time, he knew, before one of two things happened. He would begin to reflect the light back himself or the light would pass right through him.

He found the thought of dissipation overwhelming and raised his eyes to the chunky walls of unruly stone around him. Far more solid for the near century than he had turned out to be. They had been carefully chiselled and inlaid against each other, into cornices and archways by the hand of a jeweller crafting a necklace for a bride. To the untrained eye it was all slate grey flecked with bits of white but, even before the slant of the sun hit it, the cold rock face had erupted into a symphony of achromatic scales. Gainsboro and silver, dim and davy, the middles and the offs, xanadu and platinum, gunmetal, glaucous and marengo, puce, rose quartz, cinereous, all the way down to taupe. His eyes bounced from stone to stone, each chasing down its personal effulgence like a mendicant on the threshold of self discovery.

Gayatri
Image: Shutterstock, for representational purpose only

The stones were in terms of light, singing. He wondered whether light emitted notes. He knew that the visible form created music. Even in the extended universe, planets had their hum, each emitting a different frequency as they spun. Yet, one was not the other. Light was a thing apart from the visible form and the visible form was not the physical form. If anything, one was the music of the other. It was a music he had witnessed many times. Which is why he could never understand why his dear friend, the genius who had died too soon, could not paint in his barsaati without blasting his vinyl records on his diamond-tipped turntable.

You are drowning it out, he would complain to him.

What you batty old man, he would retort. What.

The music.

He would shake his head in non-comprehension, or so it seemed.

In time he thought that in fact it was the other way. He knew, he heard, but what he heard so devoured him that he used mere music to drown it out. How did he conclude this? The old geezer wouldn’t accede an inch. It was because when he saw his friend’s paintings in the end, he saw the light dancing there, in abstraction, set to tune sans choreography, like a pure aria suspended in time and space. Which is why after a few attempts at having that conversation, he let it go.

He was a believer in the inscrutability of light. He was not an academic, or a researcher, or a man who understood the physics of things. The kind of man who believed that everything had or ought to have a structure. He was molecular in a much more visceral way. He saw colour break down into elemental nebulous forms, capable of complete dissolution or solidification. Perhaps if he was a physicist who understood how gases were formed, or flowed and intermingled, he would have understood it better. Or perhaps it would have held less of an enchantment for him, all this patterning of meaning. In his presence, objects that held light released them like the rajnigandha surrendered its perfume in the presence of the night. There were other artists he knew better known for their use of colour, Caravaggio, Albers, Litchenstein, Vermeer, Kandinsky, Ishihara, O Keefe…. hundreds of masters whose names would be uttered before his own. But this did not bother him. They were to him mere manipulators of light, sleight-of-hand artists who trapped the ebb and flow into the dualities of warmth and cold, impulse and dullness, to will and whimsy. Partitioning light into a realm in which it was either there or not, too much or too less, triangulated or diadelphous, playing one against the other to mask the transitions with the wispiness of smoke and air. He may not be the best known child of light, but he knew he was its most favoured one. It was because he did not seek to control but in fact surrendered to the light. As his career, the one they called long and illustrious, progressed, he had stopped at some point chasing the light, identifying it, learning the names of its shades, experimenting with pigments, labouring over its application, seeking access to its shades and shadows. Instead, he had submitted to it and invested himself in being absorbed by it. He had been consumed.

Gayatri
Image: Shutterstock, for representational purpose only

The sermon had begun but he was not really interested in the words and since he couldn’t stand and sit he was exempt from the perfunctory passages of ritual. The sun had shifted ever so slightly since he first sat down, bathing him now in a fan of beams refracted through the eastern lancets.

“Oh” said the attendant, whispering at him under the discourse of the bishop. “Would you like me to shift you?” she asked.

He considered pretending to be asleep, but was afraid she might shift him anyway. So he shook his head from side to side and gestured to ask her to allow him to focus intently on the words. She sat back in her seat satisfied that she ought to let him be.

The incoming stream bathed him in a hosanna. It filtered in shades of shamrock and jewelled jade, periwinkle and the picotee of St Patrick, the laterite of the red earth of Auroville, and enfolded him into the lapis lazuli of the Virgin Mother. It sparkled in streams of floating stardust, making the eminently irrelevant, relevant. This is what love is, he thought, as his long-gone wife’s face fleetingly came back to him. Dust though we may be, in the correct light we are allowed, however briefly, to expend an illumination. An illumination that however short lived makes us worthwhile.

She had once asked him why he had never painted her.

Not even once. Not even in the rough. Not even a pencil sketch.

She had seemed wounded.

He remembered that morning. It was the morning after a deeply satisfying rain and the day was inhale-worthy, crisply hitting the lungs. They had been sitting at a cafe in Paris and watching people go up and down. She knew he loved to look at faces. She watched him watch them with a twinge of jealousy.

When she asked him the question, he had set his cup down on the table in consternation. She could see he was genuinely nonplussed. His eyes had widened with incomprehension.

Gayatri
Image: Shutterstock, for representational purpose only

What was this question. Where was it coming from. What did she mean. Was she harbouring this deep-seated grouse. What other complaints had she been keeping from him. What an unjust accusation. Wives cannot be muses. She thought he was saying.

Instead, he asked her, wounded, when have I painted anything but?

She was stunned.

Emotions welled up in her and diluted her tea. She had loved him for so long and failed to read the language of his love, sending him missives in entirely another tongue. She knew each flick of his wrist upon the canvas and she had yet failed to find it tracing the pores on her face.

She reached out and put her right hand on his forearm and held it till all her emotion had passed into it and up his artery into his heart.

She never asked again.

The artist felt her grip on his forearm now. He lifted his hands to rest his elbows on his wheelchair arms and, lowering his head into them, he began to weep.

His body convulsed such that the bishop gazed at him nervously in the middle of his sermon, and the attendant bit her lip. Like a deep charcoal cloudburst over him, the memories formed a deluge and threatened to drown him with their force. He reached for a pocket handkerchief by instinct and found the attendant extending him a napkin instead. It was all addled in that moment. The attendant, the bishop, the gaze of Christ, the grip of his wife, this interminable ache in his limbs, the tube sticking out of his side, his tired tired pencil-like fingers turning into the rajnigandha at the ends of his hands. Turrets on churches there were always two. He was not sure for a moment where he even was anymore.

He would later think that it was the need to find a spot to focus on while the world spun. He looked down at the toe of his right foot and held his gaze there. Where the sunbeam hit it he felt an incredible burn. He wiggled his toe to prevent it from cramping. It wasn’t pins and needles though. His body had capitulated to entropy far too completely for this brief lack of mobility to instigate any form of rebellion. He moved his foot off the pedal of the wheelchair such that it rested out of the purview of the sunbeam, part of his foot in the shadow and part in the light. That was when he first saw it. His toe had carried the gentle glow with it into the shade. It had drunk in the light. He stared at it and tried to wiggle it again. Perhaps it was his eyes that were failing and he was waiting for the inertia of perspective to wear off. He kept his gaze steady. Nothing changed. He looked up and looked around him. The congregation was too busy singing. The attendant thought he was checking to see if he had disturbed anyone. She leaned over and reassuringly patted him on his back with one hand and with the other, took back the napkin from his hand and folded it to put it away in her handy bag. He looked at her, irritated by her range of elaborate movements that completely missed the point. He looked down at his toe again.

It was not an emphatic intake of light, obvious to those who sat around him. It gleamed within itself, a speckle caught in a smirk. Its incandescence was building up on a simmer and the artist began to feel uncomfortable. He shook his leg a couple of times carefully, as though an insect had crawled up his leg and could be dislodged with some determined footwork. Exasperated, he gave up, attempted to ignore it and turn his attention back to the shafts emanating through the upper fenestella.

Gayatri
Image: Shutterstock, for representational purpose only

As the sun edged itself a little further the shafts had unfurled themselves like a peacock’s tail. The fan of beams had engulfed the apse, and now radiated across the fresco of The Last Supper. The frozen faces of the apostles thawing into focus. Before him, colours lifted, oils to a dried out palette, from olive leaves, robes and goblets of wine, grapes and urns, and swirled ahead of him. A radiance lifted apart from the wall, in imperial yellow, burnt umber, alizarin crimson, azurite, staining the air with its lips. The light moved with benediction and the artist, despite himself, closed his eyes and put his head down, raising his clasped palms to his lips. He kissed himself on his locked fingers and remained that way.

The bishop glanced at his erratic congregant during the course of his exhortation and was glad to see that he seemed to be still now. Feeling his gaze upon him, the artist opened his eyes and the bishop could see they were filled with rapture. He had seen it before, he reminded himself with a twinge of envy. Satisfied that this was a matter between him and his god, he put the old man out of his mind and returned his focus to his pulpit. He lifted the Good Book and began to read vehemently.

Sitting beneath him, out of his lips the artist saw hues of Han purple and geranium lake emerge in wisps of smoke. The bishop spoke like a man wishing he was warm puffing his way through the snowy landscape to a chapel he hadn’t arrived at yet. He understood. He had stood there himself, outside the church looking in. Inside the church looking out.

Neither was a state of being in completion.
The backdrop to the bishop had turned into a fluid scape between a starry night and a field of irises, a tangle of red vineyards and oliveiras on which hung the Christ the place holder, the frame at the centre of the picture. The lac of his hands bleeding into the cremnitz white of his robe and the purpurinus gold of his crown. His eyes the lamp black of the soot collected from the vigils of his bereaved, however, remained unswervingly fixed on him.

The dot of black at the centre of the swirl. The bindu. The blackhole at the centre of his universe. Shapeless formless unyielding expansive dark at the core of his canvas.

The artist left the church a humbled man they would say of him later. Perhaps he was carrying a burden that he had surrendered at the feet of the Lord, the faithful wanted to believe.

Gayatri

Image: Shutterstock, for representational purposes only 

At home, instead of taking to the parlour to meet those who had been waiting for him, the crowd of well-wishers had only grown in his absence, the artist who had pretended to be asleep, was taken to his private study instead. They had laid him out on the chaise longue and covered him with a comforter. The attendant had drawn the sheer lace curtains but left the blinds only partially drawn so that when the artist awoke he could see what time of day it was. He waited for the door to click shut and the footsteps to fade down the corridor before he opened his eyes. If he shifted just so he could catch a corner of the cornflower blue patch of sky, though the room was well and truly out of the reach of the sun. It would do he thought. The comforter slipped off his foot as he moved. His entire foot felt aflame now. He glanced down at it and prepared himself. The moment of evanescence was arriving and it would cauterise his body as it came. From the tips of his toes to ankles, tracing down his shins and calves, knees to groin, pelvis to chest, fingertips to armpit, even the hollow of his elbow, shoulder blades, lower back, gradually making its way up the centre of his spine, through the hollow of his neck and bursting forth like a wellspring inside his head, the white heat of the ceruse, the oldest pigment known to man, coruscated him. By the time they brought him his lunch, he was delirious with a raging fever.

He laughed as the doctor felt for his hand and tried to keep the thermometer in his mouth where it wouldn’t stay. He knew though they didn’t that his body had relinquished itself to the light. He felt the doctor’s torch pass through his eye and out the back of his skull, to the old lace of the pillow behind his neck. The doctor kept calling it the inflammation of the something or the other and that just made him want to laugh all the more. When he laughed his breath rattled about in his chest cavity and his bony rib cage puffed itself to accommodate it. He thought of his friends, all the greatest minds of his generation, destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix. This is what happens when you choose to consume the light over choosing to be consumed by it. Mastery is not submission, and yet submission is not sublimation. Those who willed him to pull back now, the executors of his estate who had promised too many more of his works to too many men who valued the signature of a man who could no longer remember his name over his heart of blackness, were too late. He had set himself down this trajectory decades ago. Those who sought mastery lived. Those who surrendered their mastery were made immortal. His eyes are not able to focus, they said, in a panic. Yet he knew they were perfectly focussed, locked into the eyes of the Christ, the black hole of the universe, the heart of the bindu, the lamp black of the soot of the burnt out flame.

Also read: Light By Sujata Massey