Sumita Dutta: The best art is an honest expression of the soul, and all of us artists spend our lives carving out bits of ourselves and displaying them for the world to judge. It could be considered vain, but for most of us introverts it is difficult, and every time is as nerve-racking and exhilarating as the first. A few phrases define me particularly well: a wacky sense of humor that kicks in at odd times, sometimes an adrenaline junkie, and being a mom––not a great one, often a nag, but one who will always be present for her sons. I have two sons and as long as they are underage, my role as a mother is my primary one. How we handle ourselves in difficult situations often becomes our defining moments. I love adventure and read voraciously through my childhood to quench that thirst. These days, either I go looking for my dose of adrenaline or it finds me. I love to travel and explore new experiences, people, and cuisines. I have been lucky enough to visit seventeen countries around the world, some incredibly beautiful. But the memory I treasure is my solo road trip from Santa Clara to Monterey, Carmel, Big Sur, up to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and back, with an overnight spent alone in the car, next to the Pacific at Carmel. Six months later, Nature decided to throw a tantrum and most of Chennai, my city, coped with a disastrous flood. Dirty water flooded my house three times in three weeks. Five feet of water inside my house, more than six feet outside during the last deluge. I am responsible for my two sons, my septuagenarian dad, my dog, and my cat. We managed to stock drinking water and staples in time. But to survive the last eight days of no electricity and no telecommunication, we had to find ways to catch rainwater. There were snakes, centipedes, fish and tadpoles living with us. I remember falling into the muddy water inside my house and coming up laughing because my family was worried. I remember my horrified prayers as I tried to stop my large fridge from floating like a coffin, and then hours later, acceptance having set in, I described my situation in humorous rhyme when friends in a WhatsApp group chatted about the flood confining them to their high-rise apartments. There were people among my friends who were packing food and helping the desperately needy during the calamity. I, marooned on the first floor of my flooded house, could only supply a few paltry jokes to alleviate the boredom of those who complained of it. Yes, the floods gave me a different perspective about life.
DV: When you look back, what do you see as the determining factor in your decision to write? A teacher, a book?
SD: I’ve been writing from when I was seven or eight years old. I’d string verses neatly in rhyme, or scrawl a descriptive write-up about some misadventure I’d landed in. I started reading early, and language usage caught my fancy -- how a phrase could be pedantic in one context and ironic in another. I was lucky to have a wonderful English teacher, Mrs. Gadadhar, in the 11th and 12th grades, who made a lasting impression on me. When I wasn’t reading, my teen years were spent filling pages of my diaries with my thoughts, expressed in both prose and poetry.
DV: How did this immature "scribbling" become more serious? Was it just a natural development brought about by constant practice, or was it a conscious, intellectual decision about "style" based on a poetry creed or theory (either yours or derived from someone else)?
SD: Unconsciously I’d put in a lot of practice in writing, parallel to my constant reading. Style was never deliberately sought. Yes, I’ve deliberately copied the great masters of oil painting, before during and after my degree in Fine Arts. But with poetry and prose, it was sheer pleasure in the pictures painted in my mind, by the written word, that attracted me. They say the best way to study a subject is to write a book or teach that subject. I trained as a teacher and taught O and AS level English and my students taught me as they bloomed and scored in my subject. I also wrote a mammoth hundred-and-six-thousand-word novel, that, as my first, should probably remain on my hard disk, its purpose lived in honing my writing skills. I believe poetry is distilled language and love to read poems that ‘blow away the top of my head.’ My written verses though are quite childlike in simplicity, any layered meaning, quite obvious. My aim while writing poetry is honesty of thought.
DV: What about your painting -- is that also childlike simplicity?
SD: I haven’t yet found my voice in painting. I’ve been through a number of phases. From photo-like smooth finish, to flat two-dimensional effect where juxtaposing different colors and shapes almost create an appearance of a pattern. Presently, I am struggling with expressing movement and emotion through brush strokes. I am very critical about my art, and that inhibits my productivity. My compositions are often conceptual -- I have an idea in my mind I’m trying to depict, and that often does not match to my satisfaction. Portraiture, life-study, and still-life come easier -- I am usually pleased that I captured some mood/essence by getting the lighting right. So, no, my art has not yet achieved the beauty of childlike simplicity and it probably never will. My art is often complex and my writing visual.
DV: Your writing is visual, and the way you describe your painting seems essentially literary -- having an idea in your mind. I understand that creativity is a rather mysterious, nonintellectual process, but wouldn't it be more "sensible" if you took a visual approach to painting and a literary approach to writing?
SD: Yes, it would be sensible and more saleable. If I were to create a painting based on the instructions of an interior decorator and color coordinate and compose the elements to fit in with its surroundings, the visual would be of paramount importance, followed by the concepts that needed to be illustrated. There is an opinion that art is no longer art if it is made to order -- it becomes illustrative craft. Well, then the Sistine Chapel has some of the finest examples of illustrative craft. Some of the best-loved modern installation art today, whether indoor or outdoor, is conceptual, visual, often experiential, involves knowledge of the materials and physics of the installation -- the whole creation is applied craft. It is fantastic art. In my case, I’ve created only to please myself and I usually have a concept behind my painting, but the visual element of a painting cannot be denied. A painting or sculpture is always visual, even if the concept is horrifying, like for example Auguste Rodin’s Gates of Hell, or the paintings of Edvard Munch or Matthias Grunewald. There’s definitely a visual element to my writing because of my training in art; whether there is any literary merit is for the reader to decide. Earlier, I wrote that my poems have childlike simplicity, but not all of them. The last couple of verses published in Glomag, in July and August, are similar to Munch’s paintings in vein. They have a rhythm, but they don’t rhyme and are quite ugly, both conceptually and visually.
DV: Do you have an artistic method? For example, do you meticulously plan your work in advance and have a regular production schedule, or do you just "wait" for inspiration and then improvise as you go along? Do you approach painting and poetry the same way, or do you treat them differently?
SD: No, there’s no particular method to my madness. The idea or thought ferments in my mind for some time before I put it down on paper. This fermentation period can be few minutes to a few years. Poetry is the fastest to go from thought to paper. Inspiration could be visual or an experience that I need to describe. Words come to mind that feel perfect and I need to put them down before I forget. Then I take time to polish it before I am satisfied. With stories and paintings, I have winged both and liked the outcome. On the other hand, there are almost fully formulated stories in my head that I’m struggling to type up. At present, I have 2-3 incomplete manuscripts that I’m working on. Some of my paintings work out like my longer manuscripts -- I never seem to feel satisfied. Some I am happy to declare done within a few hours.
DV: Aside from those story manuscripts, are you working on anything else at the moment?
SD: Yes, I take regular English Language tutorials for grade six and higher. I teach online through Skype and also direct contact classes. Occasionally, I also teach photography and take on photography/design and web related projects.
DV: You keep quite busy. How do ever get any creative work done?
SD: Anything that one wants to accomplish, that which requires time and effort, also requires discipline and focus. One always makes time for the activities and people that matter to us. The procrastination monster has to be overcome every time and that's where discipline and focus are required. The things we do to earn our living get done because of deadlines -- our commitment to others. I admit I have trouble with commitments to myself. Am working on it. It's a daily battle.
DV: If you had to choose only one, would you rather continue to be a poet or a painter? What does the chosen endeavor mean to you that makes it indispensable? What would you lose by abandoning the other?
SD: I’ll always be a poet first. The words flow instinctively at times. I don’t do it for any other purpose other than to express some thought or feeling. I don’t think I can stop that. I’m skilled at painting, and trained hoping to make a living out of it. The eye for noticing beauty in my visual surroundings has become an inherent part of me and I instinctively express it through words first, then think of capturing it in a photograph. For me, art takes conscious thought and planning to create. It is possible that I may stop painting, but I’ll always have plans to start again. If I were to abandon it purposely, it would be like part of me was allowed to vegetate.
DV: Do you ever deliberately pair one of your poems with one of your paintings to create a simultaneous visual and verbal statement?
SD: No, I haven’t painted and written anything in tandem on purpose. But yes, I have penned a verse or two inspired by a photograph I had taken.
DV: Is it possible to show us an example or two? And give us some commentary on how the photo informed the poem?
SD: I took these pics in 2011 during a trip to Darjeeling, with my sons, then aged 6 and 9. The photographs were taken within a few minutes of each other.
The Roll of Honor, a monument to some of the martyrs in our country’s freedom struggle, stands in the center of the Batasia/Batista Loop in Ghoom, near Darjeeling. This pic was taken from the moving toy train, with a plastic packet held over my camera and lens to protect from the rain. The rain, and the missing tiles on the monument that nobody has bothered to fix, gives the photo immense pathos.
The engine stoking pic was taken at Ghoom/Ghum station and a little while later, on the return journey, our toy-train went around the Loop again and I captured this pic of the man with his glasses on his forehead taking a photograph of the train, while people from the train captured him in their cameras. It had stopped raining. In the background is the statue of the Gurkha Soldier, head bowed to the monument for martyrs. In the distance, amidst the clouds, the Ghoom Monastery is visible.
I loved the Roll of Honor pic and the Engine Stoking pic from the beginning. When I participated in DAM 2015 (Design, Art and Music Festival) I decided to exhibit them along with some of my other photographs and paintings. The ridiculousness and poignancy of the third pic caught my notice while I was searching for the Engine Stoking pic. I exhibited all three and wrote the following verse as a companion to the photographs.
The Haunts of God
Some places on Earth are equal to all.
Enter, and for a few moments
Religion has no meaning.
All is calm,
Peace floats in the breathing air.
Gilded walls or oil-soot layered caves
The ground’s been hallowed by faith;
They are the haunts of God.
I wrote a completely different poem that was inspired by just the Engine Stoking photograph. Here is what I see in that photo: The contrasts in colors -- the shadowed blacks, the hot oranges, the fresh greens, and the misty greys. The contrasts and repetition in shapes between the manmade objects. The rounded shape of the opening to the vivid fire repeated in the massive lamp, the arched train roof, the curved bumper and the solid curling hooks, contrasting with the gleaming vertical metal bars/lines on the engine body. The diagonals of the shiny solid railway tracks, and the almost horizontal bar on the right lead the viewer’s gaze to the fire. All contrasts with the delicate green curlicue metal scrollwork on the wall. The lines of the wall too, direct the gaze towards the engine. Then there’s the livid fire, reflecting off the metal as easily as it is reflected off the man. I can imagine the heat burning the man’s face as he determinedly works the hot rod. He has already dumped a pile of glowing cinders. Red stars embedded in a grey galaxy, briefly decorating an unremarkable site. All of it is hot. Contrasting is the cold air and wetness all around. There’s water everywhere -- droplets clinging to the engine, the man’s raincoat and shoes, and large reflective patches of wetness and puddles on the ground. The heat and the wetness meet in the soft mist in the air mixing with the steam rising from the engine. Unlike the soft grey mist, the manmade objects are strong and hard, as is the laborious task of the man. Yet he stands delicately balanced -- one foot on a rail and the other propped on a small footrest jutting from the engine. Solidarity is also visible in the rain geared colleague visible through the engine window. Again, the curve of both men’s work-bent backs and the curves of the window edges harmonize. The objects that disturb the aesthetics of the visual are the human belongings: bags, plastic packets, papers, umbrellas… The bag hanging in the front, with the teddy-bears pattern and the umbrella sticking out, is feminine. I imagine a wife or mother in the background. Packed lunches, perhaps towels, and objects of importance to the owner must be resting invisible inside those bags. That brings me to my poem. My words are simple, saying exactly what I mean.
The Human Spirit
Whence the beginning?
In mother’s womb?
Or growing out of Him
So joyous, so wondrous;
Depthless reservoir of strength,
Glimpsed on the toughest paths.
So proud, so fallible;
Maturity a polished facade,
Onion skins of the Human Spirit.
My dad, who is 74 years of age, wrote a book, “An Overview of Spirituality.” It is a study of the Vedic viewpoint on spirituality. He took almost a decade to write it and I edited his last few revisions and published it in 2014. We often discuss spirituality and his quest to reach God through logic and understanding. I too question the generally accepted practices in religion, but I also have developed a strong belief that every creature is connected, to each other and to Him -- God. I don’t think He is a sentient being sitting in judgment over our silly foibles. He is the spirit inside us and much more than we can comprehend. Much of my writing and viewpoint originate from these beliefs and the ‘silly foibles’ I often entangle in my life. I like visiting churches, monasteries, and places of worship. Most of them have a wonderful atmosphere -- peace. I’ve seen dark caves, lit only by lamps in front of mysterious looking idols, walls and ceilings layered by centuries of soot, thickened in the course of centuries of human faith in God. I was referring to myself when I wrote 'depthless reservoir of strength' and 'pride and fallibility'. The photographs inspired me to write these words because what I saw in them resonated with me. The words already existed inside me, but I may not have penned them without these images.
DV: That was one of the best "origin stories" I've come across. It really enlightens the creative process, or at least your creative process. Do you feel that this insight would have been beyond your capacity a decade ago, or that the result would have been very different if you had written it then?
SD: I wouldn’t have been thinking along these lines, so I couldn’t have written them then. We grow and mature with every new experience, the people whose company we keep, and things we read and listen to. Our values and morals are probably formed in our early formative years (from the womb, according to modern scientists and also the ancient Vedas), and everything we experience later is coloured by our perceptions created by our values and belief system. It is a subconscious process but people can change if they consciously see a need for change and make an effort. Here are a couple of examples of my writing from my mid-teens. “Fate” is a simple descriptive poem about my imagination and whatever wants I was grappling with then.
When sleep steals over half the world
And my body rests in slumberous repose;
I then wander into my private land:
My dream land.
A land of sweet dreams,
Ecstatic hopes and fantasies;
Where castles may be built of air
But each stone is laid with love and care.
Each steeple I build there touches the sky;
Each bird I hear sings harmoniously;
Each flower there bears a smile;
My heart is at last quite happy.
So I lie on my bed,
Think in rapture and sigh;
What does not suit me,
I erase and supply.
Then suddenly with thunder rolling
And lightening flashing;
(Not that she needs moral support)
Fate appears at my side.
Fatimah, Nemesis, Kismet …
How many names she has!
Just as many ways and methods
She employs to wreck my dreamland.
With flowing black hair
And silver eyes flashing;
Quiet calmly she descends,
Right into my wandering.
I shrink back in fear
And watch her diabolical eyes
Reflect the colour
And glory of my land.
She surveys the vistas before her
With malicious delight;
Then raises her sceptre and ruthlessly
Sweeps everything down with careless might!
In one fell swoop my crystal domes are shattered;
My steeples all bent and pointing towards hell;
The flowers have all dried and clouds
Hang heavy in the sky!
Instead of my fantasies now
I gaze at a laughing face.
Her diamond chip eyes shine with glee
While I struggle in vain to set my dreams free.
Fate, She must be a beautiful siren
To get away with this disgrace!
“First Born” was written from the point of view of my parents. It is an honest outpouring of a confused person. I was a tomboy, enjoyed playing the son. My parents let me enjoy the outdoor chores I liked. I have a younger sister. That’s the explanation for the first line.
My first born, my son!
My life’s miracle
My own masterpiece.
For you I dreamt those dreams first
Those castles I built all for you.
Before these eyes I envisaged the age
When the world would lie at your feet
Life to death at finger tips;
Every step on a path strewn with flowers.
You opened that secret door in my heart
So that others could follow.
You were my first born, little one,
Who introduced me to that great sea
Of love and happiness,
Of which pain and sorrow
Play such a major part.
It was for you
That I bore nine months of pain
And yet bore you with love
But it was all in vain!
After all these years you turn on me
And insult me before my friends?
You in whom I stored so much pride
And paraded you with bloated chest!
Couldn’t you show my friends
And keep my respect?
I clucked over you with craziness:
A mother hen when ill,
And protected you like a lioness
But how, you oh mine, I wonder
Could grow into such a stupid child?
I bore you, I gave you life;
To demand is my right!
You brought the light into my eyes
And taught me the beautiful
But fickle love of a child;
But treating you like a guinea pig, I deny!
You were the first,
So you taught me
How to show my love to those that followed.
So you made the path
Easier for them to come;
You hold the hallowed position
Of being my first born!
You let my friends
Hold up their nose in disdain,
You hurt me,
But I hid my pain.
Remember for you I dreamt first,
Hoped first and prayed.
All that I own anyway
You rise to gain.
So don’t begrudge the love
I bear the others!
DV: Reading a single poem can be an epiphany, but being able to see a progression of poems over time can be more revealing about the poet’s inner self and production values. Obviously, the first difference we see between Sumita Then and Sumita Now is the length of the output -- you are much more concise and focused today -- and the related narrative quality of the early work -- your new works present a snapshot rather than a cinematic storyline. But there is also a continuity of voice and identity. The joy and wonder, the pride and fallibility, the depthless reservoir of strength from “The Human Spirit” were already quite apparent in your early work, as were your focus on birth and your fascination with the ethereal. As much as you’ve altered over time, you’ve retained a core of continuity as well. Is the same sort of constancy and change apparent in your art, do you think?
SD: Dear Duane, your analysis is very flattering :) Can’t help put in a smiley here -- language advantages of the texting age. I still write lengthy pieces sometimes. The comparatively long "The Tadpoles Didn’t See" is among them. I was rather pleased with that work -- a description of a memorable day, almost a quarter of a century back, spent with girls who I consider amongst my closest friends even today. The tadpole pool actually existed and the events happened exactly as described. In the poem, I emphasised the tadpoles' limited viewpoint as a metaphor for people who are afraid to push their boundaries. Some of them can be incredibly judgmental of others despite their limited knowledge.
The surface rippled, three pairs of feet plopped in
And the tadpoles scurried to hide in caverns.
Sighs of relief brushed over the tiny rock pool
As cool water soothed sore feet.
The tadpoles gambolled again, silence drawing them out;
They didn’t see the awestruck faces watch the raincloud’s approach.
Feet dashed out of the pool, flashed wet into shoes,
Humping backpacks they sprinted down the hill.
The tadpoles darted to hide, they didn’t see
The slanting column of rain join Earth to bulbous cloud.
When fat droplets hammered down, bullets shredding the pond,
They shivered with fright;
They didn’t hear the girls whoop with delight.
They didn’t see the girls race each other
Leaving behind joyous laughter echoing on the hill sides.
Sliding on wet rock, leaping thorny scrub, splashing through churned mud,
The girls scrambled to outrun rain approaching head-on.
Hah! Stinging necks, arms, exposed skin, smacking on heads, walloping clothes,
Running in rivulets down sun browned limbs;
The rain swooped in victorious.
The tadpoles didn't see
The girls tear across a farmer’s fallow field,
Panting giggles lost in fiercely tattooing rain,
Until brought short by a broad deep trench.
The tadpoles didn’t see
The flash flood roiling down the hilly end
In frothing bubbles and fuming spume,
Heavy water gushing to fill the gorge.
The tadpoles didn't see
Two girls jump in, dart across and climb to safety;
They called the third to hurry,
But she hesitated a bit too long.
The tadpoles didn’t see
The third jump in at last,
The rushing water now an angry river
Just a few feet away from swamping her.
The tadpoles didn’t see
The fear filled eyes,
Or hear the scream of the girls safe on the bank:
‘Mahe! Get out of there!’
The tadpoles didn’t see
Mahe nimbly climb on to a root spanning the gully,
And balance limbs braced apart
As the water gurgled past inches beneath.
The tadpoles didn’t see;
Only those girls are blessed with that memory.
I am forty-three years old now and have handled my share of trials quite well. That has boosted my self-confidence. My early art used to be painstaking; I wanted to create photographic realism. I copied photographs and the great masters’ work and some of them turned out well. Now my brush strokes are bold. I am inspired by art/photographs that I come across, but I don’t like to copy any more and photographic realism is no longer my goal. I still have a couple of paintings from my early teens. Finding an example of a recent work that I am happy with is more difficult. After I did my diploma in computer graphics in the year 2000, most of my artistic efforts have been through Photoshop and Illustrator -- manipulating photographs, compositing (incorporating two or more images seamlessly), and creating a logo or design element for some business purpose. For instance, during my tenure working in a school, I wore multiple hats including Teacher, Head Creative and Parent Coordinator. As Head Creative, among other duties, I was responsible for the production of the school magazine. This involved editing text and images created by students and displaying them to advantage in the magazine. I have also designed banners, posters, pamphlets and more for various pro-bono and paid jobs. Each creative endeavour has been incredibly satisfying.
DV: I know some culture snobs put down commercial art, but I think they miss the point. The artistic satisfaction comes from the creativity and the successful completion of the thing, not necessarily the artist's self-expression. I don't think any art form is more commercial than cinema, which depends on the collaboration of scores of craftspeople -- actors, cinematographers, scriptwriters, cosmeticians, sound and lighting technicians, film editors, set designers, musicians, composers, sometimes singers and dancers and choreographers, and so forth. However, on a personal level, don't you appreciate your less-commercial work more than the work you do to meet others' needs?
SD: Art is something that never seems to have an ending point. The artist just puts down his brush at some point and says, ‘Okay, I’m done with this.’ With private work, my personal critic does not let me feel satisfied. I may stop, frame it and hang it up on a wall, but every time I look at it I think, ‘No this hasn’t been executed well.’ Or, ‘It hasn’t turned out exactly as I imagined it.’ Unless exhibited formally, few people get to see it. Those who like the work, usually show their appreciation with a few choice words. The rest stay quiet and one assumes they don’t like it. Commercial pieces are completed because of deadlines. Many more people see it, so the percentage of people who like it increases. The fact that it was approved and produced is satisfying by itself because someone liked it enough to spend money on its production. Satisfaction is also dependent on how much of me has gone into it. If the concept is totally mine and the piece garners praise, that feels wonderful. Even in a commercial piece, there will remain elements that I wish to change or improve but that’s the learning from each experience. Creative self-expression is present in commercial art too. The concept depicts the aesthetic sensibilities, design science, and creative innovation of the artist or team behind the piece. A successful commercial design or performance art (like a movie as you mentioned), can give immense satisfaction because the artist is sure that people like it, have validated it. People’s feedback is important for an artist’s growth. There will definitely be people who don’t like your work and it is important to be receptive to the criticism in a positive manner. Both sets of people, those you like and those who don’t, are important for growth. A lot depends on the visibility of the work. There are so many wonderful writers out there whose work hasn’t been found by the public. That way, books need to be commercial enough for the publisher to be willing to invest in its production if one wants to go the traditional route.
DV: Thank you for your time and thoughtful answers. It's been a pleasure and an enlightenment. I wish you the best of fortune in your various roles.
SD: I'm very happy that a person of your experience and caliber found me worthy of an interview. It was a pleasure to interact with you, as one-sided as it was. You are very humble and completely receptive to a different thinking process. I have gained a lot from this communication -- from you, as well as from this exploration. It has surprised me on a number of levels. Thank you very much for this opportunity and your kind wishes. I wish you every happiness too. I have looked forward to receiving your comments and questions these last two weeks. I’m going to miss your emails :)