Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The amazing women in my life. Part 1: Painted bottles and patchwork

I've been thinking of doing this for a while now, as a sort of personal tribute and a series of memoires for those who care. I look at my life and am overwhelmed by the presence of these wonderful people in it. While my life, perhaps like that of most others, has been helped along considerably by both men and women, I now live in a house full of women--until three years ago, it was four generations thick. Each one of these people, and the many women outside my home that I have been fortunate to be touched by, is special, in a different way. And I just need to do this for them. And for myself.

So, about painted bottles and patchwork....

People who walk into our home marvel at the Thanjavur paintings on the walls and the patchwork covered cushions on the divan. And more recently, a walk into the kitchen might reward them with a view of sunlight dancing off the painted glass bottles that hold a variety of dals and spices. My embroidered sarees and block printed duppattas have fetched me several compliments. And I have to deflect them all, saying, "Well, it's my mother in law!" Right from the needlepoint purse I was given as part of my welcome goody bag at my wedding, to the most recent silk saree embellished with the delicacy of kantha work, my mother in law--or Shubamma, as my children call her--has had a hand in making me (and my home) look good.

Whether it is her obsession for order and neatness (something that she has reluctantly had to compromise on given the madness of our everyday lives now), or the amazingly organized way in which she manages not only her beautiful collection of sarees but also the various details of our bank accounts and savings (where would I be without her record keeping?), she has set standards that I find difficult to match.

There's never any rancour in her tone when she talks about how she did not have the opportunity to go to college or to study the things she would have wanted to. Perhaps it is because she married a man who held learning and the life of the mind above most else, or because of her own strong will, she continued to gain an education from life and from her own reading. She is, even today, one of the most well informed persons I know--she watches the news and reads every paper and magazine that enters the home, and does all of this critically.

Subhashini Subhrahmanian was born in Polur, Tamil Nadu, in 1934 as Kamakoti, seventh in a family of eight siblings. Her father was a wealthy landowner and businessman, and the family had the name "Vaidyam" as they were credited with healing knowledge. She lost her mother when she was just six or seven years old and in the large family with several older siblings and their spouses, the irreplaceable vacuum that is created by the loss of a mother was not particularly remarked upon, because the caregiving is ostensibly taken over by the older members of the extended family. Her early years of schooling were in Polur but later moved to stay with her sister's family in Villupuram where she completed her high school. On her marriage to a college teacher, K Subrahmanian, her name was changed (as was the convention in many families at the time) to Subhashini and she moved to Chennai, and to a life of relative simplicity. After having grown up in a wealthy family, with several servants, in a village where the family name drew both respect and awe, this was a big change for her. She had to learn how to live the simple and rather frugal life necessitated by a teacher's salary. But it was also a shift to another kind of lifestyle, one where books and learning were more the subject of discussion than the yield of the paddy fields or the family's contribution to the maintenance of the local temple. By her own admission, it wasn't an easy transition, but she made it--with grace and commitment. A Fulbright scholarship took the family to Indiana University in Bloomington, USA, and that was another major shift in her life, but again, she adapted and learnt, also learning how to type (she typed my father in law's dissertation and later most of his articles) and supplement the graduate student's meagre scholarship. In 1969, the family moved back to India, finally to Hyderabad, where she found her space and created a permanent home. Arts and craft have remained central to her existence, giving her a creative outlet in the middle of these many transitions and adjustments. She's tried practically everything, from doll making to needlepoint and tapestry to Kashmiri and Kutchi embroidery to reverse glass painting and Thanjavur painting. Most recently, she had a young artist come home to teach her "single stroke" floral painting, and this is what she has adapted to the medium of glass.

About a year ago, Subha (as her friends call her) fell and fractured her spine. She was in bed for four excruciating months, unable to even turn on her side. All handwork came to a standstill, and she spent her time listening to music and stilling her mind, willing herself to get back on her feet. Gradually, she improved, and has been able to return to doing some of the things she loves. All through this convalescence, she remained focused and cheerful, never submitting to depression or self pity--actually making herself better because of this attitude.

She's past her three-quarter-century mark but not a day goes by when she has not applied her hand to some craft or art, despite the several setbacks in her health that have affected body but not spirit or mind. She comes across as a super-efficient, somewhat forbidding woman, always impeccably groomed, her keen eye observing the minutest detail. But over the years, we have come to understand each other, and appreciate each other's point of view. Our conversations often go beyond the routine of family and home, venturing into politics and philosophy and society. From her, I have learned that it is possible to build a home and yet be an independent thinker, that it is possible to have an open mind even when possibilities of discovery and exploration have been denied to you.

When I look at those glass bottles on my kitchen shelf, it is not the sunlight that captures my eye, or even the prettiness of the flowers and leaves that adorn it, but it is the reflected image of her hand holding the brush, a fleeting movement of colour against the window that frames a life.


Kamini said...

What a fabulous lady Usha! And such talent. I have seen those Thanjavur paintings and they are beautiful! My compliments to her!

Suroor said...

It's so wonderful that you're doing this. It's important to acknowledge people in our lives that have given us the things that really matter. I've known Aunty for so long, but I ugess in a way I didn't know her at all. Looking forward to reading more!

Sadhana Ramchander said...

Very touching post, Usha. Nice to read about your mother-in-law...there really are so many unknown greats in the world, aren't there? Mostly women, I would like to add!