An Atypical Review of a Legendary Painting

Oedipus and the Sphinx. An 1864 painting by Gustave Moreau located in the New York City Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A slender man wearing nothing but a green sheet falling from his waist and a spear in his hand stares intently at a woman, her eyes penetrating his gaze while her neck, chest, and breasts curve upwards against his body. It seems a mystical force is holding her in position and he is locked in submission–his spear facing downwards.

Captured by the hypnotic aura of the painting my eyes skim the background looking for clues: a serpent slithering around a post, a vase holding something I can’t quite decipher, and a dead man’s foot lurking beneath a boulder. The colors are a mixture of blue, grey hues across the dimly lit sky and rich brown, red, and a tinge of gold saturate the latter half of the painting. But missing the most obvious of them all the woman a beautiful winged creature that I took for granted. She has the arched back of a lion. Her paws lurch onto the man’s erogenous zones.

The story goes that Oedipus, the man featured in the painting, is confronting a winged monster called a sphinx. Oedipus must solve the monster’s riddle to enter the land of Thebes and free the Thebans from her rule. Oedipus is able to solve the riddle and is then offered the hand of his widowed mother in marriage, at the time the fact unknown to him after never meeting his mother or father. Oedipus later succumbs to the tragedy of ripping his eyes out after learning he slept with his mother.

But what demanded my attention after seeing the painting was not the story but the minute of utter amazement as my eyes flicked back to the winged woman, who did not look very much like a monster to me. Her arched lioness body became visible after a second glance.

Walking down a hall of 19th Century contemporary paintings displaying women, nymphs, widows, and monsters I became fascinated with the many forms women could take. In this painting that sparked the Salon of 1864, the female monster called a sphinx wears a crown looking just as beautiful on the upper half of her body as the next ancient Greek woman.  

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How Singing Brought Me Closer to God

A dozen of family and friends gather around–some elderly women on the couch and other mothers, uncles, and children scattered around the bright lighted living room. A collective group of voices sing Hindu chants and devotional songs.

My voice is not good, while I love to talk–singing has never been one of my talents. Sometimes I can carry a tune but belting out a chant in Hindi or singing the rhythms of a demanding bhajan can be nerve-racking for me. Though now I find myself singing, clinging on to the Hindi words praising lord Krishna. It is the way I feel closest to my Grandma and the way I am helping her soul.

In the past I dreaded singing. I felt I had no understanding much less a connection to the music. It was embarrassing for me as a child being forced to sing at mandir or Hindu temples revealing how little I knew about the Hindi language I did not speak.

Since my Grandma passed away I find myself singing in the company of my family members and friends and reading the meanings of songs during wakes.

But even before the days leading up to my Grandmother’s last rites Hindu ceremony or “shraadh”, I found myself singing and praying with immediate family by the bedside of my ailing Grandma. It was the only way I felt I could soothe her pain when words like “Hang in there Gram” proved no longer effective.

As Rabindranath Tagore once wrote in his collection of poems titled Gitanjali, “When grace is lost from life come with a burst of song.” I think that best describes how I felt when singing to my Grandma during her last few days of life.

For me singing bhajans or Hindu songs during my Grandma’s wakes allowed me to forget about the daily stressors of life, leave it all behind, and concentrate on my Grandma and her passing hopefully into a path of liberation as Hindus would say. But so many, including myself, have taken this power of singing for granted until death crosses your path.

Hindu Goddess of Knowledge and Music Saraswati

I argue that if you do believe in a higher being, singing is a way to feel one step closer to that being. It is a personal step one makes to sing with devotion, but when done with no intentions besides reaching a peaceful state God feels much closer to you.

But the very act requires one to submit themselves to be heard–the end result could be glorious and aunties and uncles can be asking you to “sing wan more” or the surrounding audience can be wishing to lower down that mike. It is amazing how so many Indo-Caribbean Hindus are drawn to singing as a method of reaching God but also equally amazing how it took me so long to realize you don’t have to be good to sing.

Many Guyanese and Trinidadian Hindus who emigrated from their home countries to this city do not speak Hindi but they carry their culture and religion through music and song. You can imagine the three worlds Hinduism has managed to pass through: from India, to the West Indies, and then to New York City where West Indian immigrants have created a new life, built a thriving Hindu community of temples, and bring their children to experience the religion and culture.

Throughout Queens songbooks are passed around in places of worship and first-generation youth are trained in music schools all over the city to play the harmonium, sitar, dholak, tabla, and sing bhajans in Hindi–though most of these youth do not speak the language too.

There is something universal about the idea of spreading religion through songs when you do not even speak the language you are singing–you feel the divinity behind the words and that is good enough a reason to sing.

My Grandma was a spiritual woman who found joy and excitement in hearing the latest Prakash Gossai bhajans. Singing to her was a way to connect to the Lord and share in the praise of gods and goddesses through song. She could not converse in Hindi either but she represented the many elderly women who know this power–to sing in temples, during pujas or Hindu ceremonies, and among family and friends despite how good of a singer you may be or whether you completely understand the language.

I have walked into pujas and ceremonies where one may be rendering a song that may not exactly pleasing to the ear and members of the audience are secretly wondering when is this song going to end. I know this because those thoughts have entered my mind too. But many of us have not realized that singing brings a certain power or closeness to God for those in need of it.

When you do–like I did this past week–you will understand that singing is not just music but a movement that has transgressed time, place, and language to establish a unique relationship with yourself and a much more powerful force.

Grandma Julain Khilawan Pardesi

Sunrise November 4, 1935 – Sunset August 6, 2012

The late Julain Khilawan Pardesi: “Mama” of 6 children, “Grams” of 17 grandchildren, and “Granny”of 20 great-grandchildren.

Stepping out of the attic facing the top of the staircase I struggle to keep a stack of toys within my grip. I slowly inch one little foot onto the next step. I can barely see the end of the stairs.

With much concentration I reach halfway down the stairs but suddenly one foot trips in front of the other. In a split second my toys and my little body come crashing down the stairs.

My Grandma turns around and looks at me face down on the floor, my arms and legs sprawled out, and my toys scattered around me.

She stretches out her hand and offers to help me up.

Then she says, “Kameel, take your time and peel your pine.”

Last year I wrote an article in tribute to my Grandma titled “Our Female Sages” It was published on August 6, 2011. This year on August 6, 2012 my Grandma passed away.

I had no knowledge that my Grandma wouldn’t be with me exactly the year after my article about her was published but I have taken it as a symbol that time was always on my Grandma’s side.

Sometimes I wonder how was my Grandma so successful at being a Grandma. I think the answer is she always made time for herself and for others. In my home, anytime a pamper needed to be changed, a tear wiped, or a warm smile offered she was there.

My Grandma lived with me, my parents, and my two sisters for nearly two decades. Growing up I became accustomed to hearing her cassettes playing the tunes of Hindu bhajans every morning.

When I was five, I had stomachaches that only she could treat with hot black tea and sugar but really it was her comfort and understanding that helped me the most.

Food was always given with a smile, the gentle force of her hospitality, and with a tale.

Saijan baji she said would, “Help me see better” and pumpkin would “make me smarter”–it was those tales that would cast a giggle on me and my sister’s faces. We would always wonder if she really meant it or if she was just trying to get me to eat.  Nevertheless food became a way for my Grandma to teach us the lesson she would never feel full until we were.

My Grandma serving up some baji to her grand-daughters.

She reminded us even though we were girls to “take your book seriously” Her dream as a young girl to become a teacher was not exactly fulfilled but she taught me and my sisters to make the most of our education, help in the house, and be a part of Hindu culture.

My Grandma with me and my sister “Minty”

Underneath every piece of wisdom she gave us was her mark of a good person–to love yourself no matter what wrong you do and love your parents no matter how old you are.

She was born in Plantation Albion in Guyana and her roots from late parents Betty and Arron Erriah were of strength, tenacity, and passion. My Grandma was an intelligent student in Guyana but was married at the tender age of sixteen and later had six children.

At thirty my Grandma became a single mother due to the death of her husband. She was faced with the challenge of feeding six mouths and ensuring a safe roof over her children. She took on the task by becoming a rice vendor selling in the marketplace–measuring dozens of twenty gallon bags of rice each day.

After her children grew up and were acclimated, my Grandma moved to New York City in 1984. She took care of her grandchildren but never stayed confined to the home. She visited all parts of Europe, United States, and the Caribbean while encouraging other family members to come along for the ride too.

It was in this time of her life that she witnessed some wonders of the world–something very few are able to. Yet with all of her travels she still made trips back to Guyana to host annual jhandis at her home.

My Grandma was able to do all of this within her seventy-six years of life. In her words she “took her time and peeled her pine” Even in the last few months that she lived she reminded me to do just the same.

As an adult I am always in a hurry to do things, to be successful, to make sure I get a chance to try everything even if I can’t see what is at the end of the stairs. But my Grandma was able to do so much in no hurry at all and I’m sure she will rise to her final destination.

My Grandma passed away this past Monday August 6th 2012 in her own bed at home. Her hands were loosely clasped with a murti of Lord Krishna by her side.

Our Female Sages

Her eyes looked upon me so kindly beneath her wrinkled, soft skin. Her glasses shimmered with wisdom while her smile penetrated my soul. It was just another visit with Grandma and I was feeling like my time spent with her was invaluable. 

This picture and article was originally published in The West Indian last year on the day my Grandma passed away August 6th. She must have been working in mysterious ways. The caption was “My Grandma, Narinamah Julain Pardesi. 75 Years and Going Strong.” Now she will be living strong in our hearts forever.

There is something mystical about the old. Those who have wisdom through their years always amaze me. Like my Grandma, so many elders have wisdom through the rare ability of telling the truth. Having lived for so long and witnessing so much of life, the truth comes easier off the tongues of those with age. I learned about the wonders of old people since I was a child when I was about four years old.
We were on our way to Florida on an American Airlines flight. I was happy to have the company of my dentist Barbie along with my Mother, Father, and older sister. I was four and it was a great age to be. I was able to wander around and get away with it, I could play with all of the airline stuff and still be cute, and I was able to charm the passengers in conversation. My Mother was always concerned with my habit of wandering off and speaking to strangers, but I still did it anyway. And that flight was no excuse.
I began to strike up a conversation with an elderly passenger with blonde hair. From what I remember her hair was long like mine and was in a braid. It was such a wonderful similarity and the old woman found me to be very intriguing. I can’t remember what we spoke about that day, but all I remember is that we spoke for a while. My Mom found me speaking to her and was so relieved yet also so surprised to see I had so much in common with the elderly woman. That was the first notable time that I exhibited the curiosity for wisdom from elderly women.
When I was about five years old, my bike was my main mode of transportation. I would dress up in my fanciest jumpsuits to have a chat with my favorite two old grandmas on the corner of my block. Each day I would bike my way to the corner and talk to my old friends. They were both exact opposites of each other, but they lived together and had the strongest friendship I had ever seen. It was like Rose and Dorothy from the popular television show Golden Girls. One of the women was a smoker and the tougher out of the two. The other older woman was very kind and I remember her love for holidays as she put out a different flag for each season and celebration. I thought when I was older; I wanted my house to be just like theirs.
Each day I would take a trip to hear their lively conversations. They always helped me and gave me advice whether it was when I talked about my family or the little boy on the block who gave me flowers unnecessarily. They were always there for me, until the day that the tougher women passed away. I was so sad and couldn’t understand why she went away. After that, the other kind old lady didn’t come out on the porch very often and she eventually sold the house on the block. I couldn’t bike there anymore, but I remember her telling me goodbye. I knew that she really would miss me and I would miss her too.
There is something to say about relationships with the elderly. Although death comes without warning, curiosity for life never ends. Throughout my life, I’ve explored conversations with elderly women and have found that they are our modern day female sages. I’ve encountered so many old wise women that often hold the key to life’s simplest mysteries. I remember each time I visit a close friend; I always take the time to chat with her “Aaji” or Grandmother.  Although she doesn’t always remember what grade I’m in, she tells me “Just take you education and do your best. God will bless you if you try.” And sometimes it’s just as simple as that. It was advice from someone who has lived through many decades and has seen it all through a female perspective from Guyana, to here, to now.
Perhaps my interest in the elderly is because of the fact that I spent a significant amount of time with one of the wisest old women of my time, my Grandma. Her influence has pushed me to find out more about the older women in our community who are so strong, hold so dearly to cultural and religious values, and are often such amazing mothers who defy all odds to have the best for their family. My Grandma always tells me to study hard, she encourages me to reach my fullest potential, and she always listens to my long, circular stories whether they are interesting or not. My Grandma is a progressive, and despite her age, her wisdom increases with relevance to our times. Sometimes the simplest words are the most applicable to life. Her advice is so familiar, yet so relevant and that’s what makes her a modern day female sage.
I’ve always discovered the sincerest advice from elderly women whom I feel a close connection with. Some would call me an old soul, but I like to think of it as just doing the smarter thing.  It’s wiser to get advice from those who’ve lived. Sometimes by taking the time to hear the elderly you could gain a different perspective on life. To me these elderly women are our modern day female sages, and this article is a tribute to the strong old women that lived.

The Vision for Shri Trimurti Bhavan from Pandit Chunelall Narine

Shri Trimurti Bhavan, called a “thriving Ozone Park temple” by the New York Times has made strides in the spiritual, cultural, and community life of many Indo-Caribbean Hindus. During the course of 14 years, the mandir has become a hotspot attracting politicians like Eric Ulrich and Mayor Bloomberg as well as spiritual leaders like Sri Swamiji. The temple youth have also played a prominent role in the Jamaica Bay Clean-Up Campaign. As the mandir celebrates its 14th anniversary, the leader and pandit-in-charge Chunelall Narine explains how the mandir has progressed and reflects on the future of Trimurti in its need for expansion.

Spiritual leader of the Shri Trimurti Bhavan mandir, Pandit Chunelall Narine.


What is your vision for Trimurti? Any current or future plans underway?

My vision for Trimurti is expansion. I think we have literally outgrown this mandir especially when we have important functions here, we run out of space. My vision is down the block, if it becomes available, then we should purchase more real estate in the future and expand our operations to include more youth and do much more for our seniors because we don’t have a program for our seniors right now. We purchased another building down the block which would be used as a cultural center but that building is in limbo right now. As it seems right now, it will fall in the hands of those that occupy it. My vision is to grow in size and to expand our activities, to do much more for the youths, seniors, and congregation.

City Councilmember Eric Ulrich greets a crowd at Trimurti in 2009. (Photo Courtesy of Gabel for News)

Explain more about the cultural center. What are some ideas for the way it would be run and what activities would be held there?

The cultural center would mean to implement a lot of cultural programs for our children like music programs, dance programs, and Hindi classes. The culture is about the youth. So at the cultural center we’d like to put the youth in charge. We have some brilliant youth here with technology at their hands. One of the things I’d also like to see is a permanent drama class. We were very successful in the few dramas we did for this mandir like Bhakt Prahlad and Ram Banwas. I’d like to see more of this happen…dramatizations, and re-enactments of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and other related Hindu texts.

Youths from Trimurti gather to clean up Jamaica Bay in Queens, New York on April 2011 Earth Day. (Photo Courtesy of Kamini Doobay)

During the last 14 years how has Trimurti progressed?

An area we have developed is in youth development and empowerment because one of the main focuses for this mandir is the youth. This means harnessing the capabilities of the youth in areas of music, academics, and so on. We have counseling sessions and music classes and the youths are given an opportunity. Now you may think the youth get a chance to sing here, so what happens to the other community out there? Well whatever happens here is also aired on Jyoti Satsangh on TV, so more than 10 million people are watching so the youth can expose their talents to 10 million people. We’ve also managed to produce at least three brilliant young pandits who serve the outside community as well. These pandits are the future leaders of tomorrow.

What are some of the reasons individuals come for counseling in Trimurti?

Couples come here with problems, family problems, and social problems. We sit down with them, interact with them, and help them to resolve whatever they are experiencing. Many people have gotten a lot of help here. Many people have also come with physical problems and illnesses. They pray and manage to get cured because of their faith. We’ve seen phone calls coming in the middle of the service where people are called right away for emergency treatment and relief from their problems.

Sri Swamiji visits the sprawling altar of Trimurti in July of 2000. (Photo Courtesy of Datta Peetham)

How does the administrative and executive body interact with the membership of Trimurti?

Another thing I must mention is that many mandirs today have administrative problems, with the executive, where they cannot get along. There are people who are power-hungry and people greedy for power and they have their own personal agenda when it comes to the mandir. And you can see many mandirs are split because of this now at the administrative level. And at this mandir, thanks to God and to a very capable executive body, we have not experienced that here. We have a very harmonious relationship at the executive level and at the membership level.

Shri Trimurti Bhavan Inc. is located at 101-18 97th Avenue in Ozone Park, Queens. To learn more log on to www.shritrimurtibhavan.org and to receive weekly updates join the group Shri Trimurti Bhavan on Facebook.

Rajeev Varma Comes to Richmond Hill for D’Arranged Marriage!

Rajeev Varma is a leading Indo-Asian actor and founder of New Zealand’s first South Asian theatre “Untouchables” collective. He’s played prominent roles such as the Hindu lord Krishna in the hit TV show Xena: The Warrior Princess and also stage productions like “From India with Love.” Now he comes to Richmond Hill for a one-man comedy show titled “D’Arranged Marriage” presented by Flat Tire Productions. In this edited interview, Varma gives me the inside scoop on the stage production D’Arranged Marriage, why it resonates with so many Indians, and what it’s like to realize you aren’t white in the acting world. 

Acclaimed Indo-Asian actor Rajeev Varma during a performance.

 
So tell me why you’ve decided to take this one-man comedy show, D’Arranged Marriage, to Richmond Hill, Queens?
D’Arranged Marriage is a show that resonates with the South Asian diaspora. When we created the show we created it for the South Asian diaspora in New Zealand of which there’s about 100,000 of us there. And then we took it to Australia and it resonated with South Asians there. And then we took it to Malaysia and it resonated with many Malaysian South Asian Tamil speakers. So the show’s humor was seeming to translate along identity lines of the diaspora. Then I took it to Richmond Hill in Canada and Manhattan and it resonated there as well…so for me it’s pretty straightforward to take it out to Richmond Hill, if there’s a West Indian community. From my interactions with Alisha Persaud at Flat Tire Productions it seems to me that you guys are pretty much, you know, Indian. You’re just like me in a way.
How did you create and develop D-Arranged Marriage?
D’Arranged Marriage was written in collaboration between myself and my business partner Tarun Mohanbhai. Tarun is a Gujrati Indian that grew up working in a cornershop in New Zealand. Initially, the play was connecting his comedy experience and me directing it and co-writing it with him. And over the years, it’s evolved and we’ve managed to clone the show so he can do it and I can do it… there’s a U.S. version and a South Pacific version.

One of Rajeev Varma’s eight characters, Pushpa, in D’Arranged Marriage.

Is the reason why so many members of the Indian diaspora relate to D’Arranged Marriage because they are twice-removed or removed from India?

Yes. I’d say that because the central protagonist, Sanjay’s point of view is a child of New Zealand. He has an easily identifiable liberal point of view on things and his parents have a very easily identifiable conservative view of things but then again it’s played for comedy. It’s not like a reverent look at it. It’s irreverent….D’Arranged Marriage is ridiculous comedy, it’s not about making a social statement. But I think many people who come can identify with Sanjay. He works in his family business and sneaks off at night to do stand-up comedy. I think many people from the diaspora can relate to that. They may have dreams that might not be in sync with what their parents want from them.
Has it been challenging as a Indo-Asian actor to break into the film and television industry in New Zealand? If so, how have you dealt?
When I graduated drama school in 1994, I thought I was a white guy when I went to the industry. I didn’t get any auditions for the roles white guys were playing. I got auditions for a taxi driver, a cornershop owner, and later on after 2001, surprise, surprise, the terrorist. The industry just slapped me in my face and said you’re not white, you’re Indian…so live with it [.…] At the time there was very little place for South Asian characters. But when I turned to my identity as a source of power as opposed to a weakness that I needed to hide, that’s when I started to become successful. In 2003, I started creating South Asian based theatre and suddenly so many South Asians in New Zealand that hadn’t had any artists doing that at that time in that form started to come out. And the shows just started selling out…They [South Asians] had their own life.
What’s one of the factors that makes D’Arranged Marriage resonate with so many members of the Indian diaspora?
The intergenerational comedy and the conflict of older generation and the younger generation…And there’s a little drama in it like many of the Indian films like Khabhi Kushi Khabi Gham and Dilwahle Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. It’s all the same…the love for somebody and the parent’s not wanting that love. That generational conflict is the basis of D’Arranged Marriage’s primary comedy.
Are you excited to bring this stage production to the West Indian community in Richmond Hill? 
I’m really excited. It’s going to be awesome. It’s kinda like the Malaysian Indian community that I experienced. The exciting thing about it is that I don’t know. I know that the work is strong. I’ve done the show hundreds of time so I know that it works. But it’ll be interesting to see if the audience is more conservative or more generous…like are there gonna be aunties and uncles who are coming. Sometimes those aunties and uncles will silently enjoy the show but they won’t give it up or are there going to be young, urban professionals at the show? I don’t know. They are different audiences to gear for.

The flyer for Richmond Hill’s D-Arranged Marriage.

D-Arranged Marriage will be shown on May 19th at 7pm and May 20th at 5pm at MoKa Nightclub and Lounge located at 130-35 91 Avenue, Queens NY 11418. Tickets are $20 at the door and $15 at Star Music (104-09 113 Street, Queens).  You can also buy tickets online. Contact (347) 777-FLAT for more information. Free Admission to MOKA Nightclub after the show with your ticket stub!