Following an artist's search for inspiration in Tamil Nadu, a land of riotous colors, omnipresent spirituality, and that elusive state of grace.
It is the nature of some artists that they leave home to find home, whereas others travel in search of the exotic. Long ago, the painter Francesco Clemente left Naples, Italy, where he was born and raised, and found home in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. He lived for a time in its capital, Madras, on the grounds of the Theosophical Society by the sea, where the second-largest banyan tree in the world throws its ever-widening shade. Later, Clemente stayed as a guest at the Aurobindo Ashram, farther down the Coromandel Coast, in the former French-colonial town of Pondicherry—one of the great destinations for soul-searchers because of two sages who lived there, Sri Aurobindo and a Frenchwoman best known as the Mother. He used the handmade paper produced there for several of his works, such as the magical "indigo room" that was part of the 1999 retrospective of his art at New York's Guggenheim Museum. He has been a New Yorker for more than two decades now but still returns regularly to southern India. I wanted to see the places and meet some of the people that had so inspired my friend—his Tamil muses.
Clemente gave me many suggestions for the trip, and we talked about the unique atmosphere at certain ashrams, the feeling that one is not alone in trying to make sense of one's life. In Tamil Nadu I went in search of that "state"—an Indian state of grace, which is both a place and a state of mind. When a yoga master from Madras was asked why he thought foreigners come to India on spiritual quests, he replied that he didn't know; when pressed further, he suggested, "Because they are mad." He found it odd, perhaps, that people who have access to every comfort, and possess a healthy body and mind, should believe salvation to have taken up permanent residence in India. And yet, in India's temples and ashrams, a conducive feeling often hovers: faith is everywhere, and everywhere there are sadhus and sannyasis—renouncers, men who have given up family, profession, and home to live on alms and sleep in a temple.
I met such a man on my first morning in Madras. Nachi Appan has published many books and catalogues with Clemente, as well as a palm-sized library of contemporary writing founded by Clemente called Hanuman Press. Some years ago, the abbot of the monastery to which Nachi's family belonged had died, and Nachi was chosen to replace him. As Clemente told me, "In India, renouncing means you take off your clothes and go on foot." Nachi had discarded his Western garments for an orange cloth, which is what he wore when he received me that morning in his office. Looking disapprovingly at my boots and jacket, he said, "One must learn to undress in India." Teetering on one foot and then the other, I removed my boots before entering his little office in a two-story building steeped in greenery.
His desk was piled with the publications he and Clemente had collaborated on over the years. They did not in the least resemble standard catalogues. They were printed on thick, fibrous, handmade paper, some of it with visible black and brown wisps and often in colors like Day-Glo orange and Bazooka pink that are so typically Indian.
When Clemente came to Tamil Nadu as a young man, barely in his twenties, he had just married the avant-garde stage actress Alba Primiceri, and they were expecting their first child. He took to the Indian graphic sensibility: the colors and sizes, the movie and political-campaign posters, as well as traditional images, such as miniatures, the reliefs and frescoes in temples, not to mention the shrines, lingams (stylized phalluses), deities. The androgyny, sexuality, and physicality of gods and goddesses so explicitly rendered—all this entered Clemente's work and never left it, or rather him. His ongoing visual autobiography became inseparable from the "Indian eyes" he acquired in those years.
But perhaps they were already his from a previous life—if you believe in reincarnation. If you don't, you could simply say he adopted an Indian way of seeing as if it were infinitely familiar, like falling into an old suit that allows the greatest ease of movement, almost like wearing no clothes at all. All Clemente's paintings, in one way or another, are painted as if he wore no clothes—on his mind, that is, a naked mind inseparable from the anatomy. An immense pair of eyes, so often staring out of his self-portraits, observe the artist observing himself living in a present that is continually expanding to include another glimpse of his own psyche.
One of Clemente's favorite Indian saints is Ramana Maharishi, a man who lived most of his life in southern India at the foot of the sacred Mount Arunachala. He always recommended that one dwell more and more deeply on the question, "Who am I?" Clemente appears to have followed that instruction to the letter. The question summarizes both the subject and method of his art. He said once, "I have to remember what I am doing and abandon it."
Clemente had given me the number of his friend Prema Srinivasan. There are few models of perfection, and she's one of them. Tall and reedy, with large hazel eyes, she wears her silvery hair cut short, is up at dawn, and decides the menu for the entire day before breakfast, including lunch to be delivered, hot and at the appropriate time, to her grandchildren at school and to her sons at the office. And she's a scholar of southern Indian ritual, cuisine, and scripture.
I met her in the hallway of the Taj Connemara Hotel, where I was staying in Madras, and she led me to her car outside. Her driver, following very precise directions, dropped us off at the restaurant of the Taj Coromandel Hotel. There we had an immense round table in a corner all to ourselves. To eat with your hands when you're not used to it is as uncomfortable as eating with forks and knives must be if you've always eaten with your hands. Which hand do you use?How do you scoop up something with sauce, or take hold of grains of rice?I watched Prema, but her movements were so swift they were practically invisible. She barely seemed to be eating, while my fingers felt as though they were twice their usual size. Since she was my hostess, Prema kept replenishing my large round thali dish with fresh mounds of food, and I had trouble keeping up. The last course of our elaborate vegetarian dinner was a leaf into which Prema daintily packed grains, spices, and sugar crystals. You put it all into your mouth: it's like eating sweet gravel and part of a fragrant bush.
By the next morning she had compiled three densely written sheets of recommendations for my journey to the cities and temples of Tamil Nadu. I called it Prema's Plan, and in the days that followed referred to it often. The itinerary ran north to south, down the coast and then inland. I went first to Pondicherry, where, in a neighborhood of whitewashed French colonial architecture, I found the Park Guest House, which is run by the Aurobindo Ashram.
My room overlooked a garden and the sea. The beds were a little hard, and I woke up in the course of the night. I turned on the light and looked at the two framed photographs on the wall in front of me: one was of a corpulent, half-naked man in a dhoti with long, uneven white strands of hair and beard growing into one another so as to become indistinguishable—the sage Sri Aurobindo. The other was of a Mata Hari—type woman, wearing a white spangled veil tied low over her forehead, her eyes circled in thick liner. She was the French mystic Mira Alfassa, a former avant-garde painter who had her first visions as a young girl staying at the Aurobindo Ashram. She was, and still is, thought to be a "realized being," and everyone calls her the Mother. Clemente told me a few days later, "They say she defeated Hitler in an astral war."
I had encountered her once in New York, at a glamorous gathering overlooking Central Park that a poet friend had taken me to. Everyone filed up to the doe-eyed lady in the sari expecting "something" to happen, for most people see the mystical as a relief from the everyday. I recall a trim blond woman asking another, "Did you get zapped?"
I'd been told, by more than one person, to avoid the dangers of the highway. Drivers barrel along at terrifying speeds, expecting everything to move out of their way, but my driver Sekar and I got on the highway and pretty much stayed there. You pass through towns that suddenly materialize with children playing, goats scrambling, cows napping, women cooking, men smoking—one foot or both on the asphalt. I told Sekar to slow down as we drove through the most inhabited areas, and I had to repeat the request a few times. He said, "I know road well, Madam. I not worry to drive fast." Later, he looked into the rearview mirror and confided, "I like you, Madam—very strict, very nice. My boss, too—she very strict, very nice."
After a while on the road, I began to notice the signs advertising political parties painted on the façades of houses—the Congress Party is symbolized by a hand or a bicycle; another is represented by a mango. "I've stolen them all already," Clemente later told me. As for the candidates, always depicted wearing dark sunglasses, he thought they gave off a "menacing power," and that they were a cross between gangsters and deities—the stone ones you see in temples glistening beneath the layers of black oil they're sprinkled with daily.
Chidambaram is one of the holiest sites in Tamil Nadu because it's believed that here the dancing Shiva, Nataraja, did his first dance in the presence of his consort, Parvati. It was torture to walk barefoot across the paved courts at midday. One should wear socks, as I saw some foreigners doing, or practice walking over hot coals first. At the crowded entrances to shrines, the priests were constantly trying to get me to sign my name or make a donation, and there were huddles of eunuchs with hair long on one side and short on the other to symbolize their androgyny. I fled. Clemente told me, "The priests want a donation for puja and they want you to keep sending money for five years so they can continue to do puja." (Puja is a ritual offering.)
Later, in Kumbakonam, I told Mr. Kalidas, a storekeeper selling tin vessels, of my experience at Chidambaram and how I had tried to ignore the solicitations. He nodded. "Ignoring is correct procedure. Anytime you go to a big temple, priests come and they kill you"—he made a gesture of a hand descending on his head like a bolt of lightning—"insistently they are boring you."
Now and then Prema called me along the way. She must have been gratified that I was adhering to her schedule, down to visiting the tinware seller, the silversmith, and the antiques dealer she had recommended. In Kanchipuram, Mr. Virappan's sari shop had three little rooms and a cupboard containing neat piles of handwoven silk saris. Mr. Virappan drew a happy elephant for me on a sheet of paper, and a peacock, before retrieving from a chest the design Jackie Onassis had picked out some moons ago. In Kumbakonam, Mr. Gopaldas's shop had a gold jewelry department where women sat while salesmen behind glass cases showed them merchandise. Above their heads were large photographs of gurus—Aurobindo, the Mother, Ramana Maharishi, and then, unexpectedly, Jesus Christ. When I asked Mr. Gopaldas the reason for this display, his answer was practical: "People come here to buy very valuable items sometimes, and I think they are reassured if they see the image of their favorite saint."
Mr. Kalidas, from whom I purchased a dozen tin tumblers, had accompanied me to Mr. Gopaldas's shop. When we left, he said, "Do you want to have dinner or do you want tiffin?" I said tiffin because I liked the sound of it and was curious to discover what that might be. He relaxed into a confident smile. "If it's tiffin you want, I have that at home." There we were met by his daughter Apurna, who has a degree in corporate business but plans to get married now and "settle down," and by his very young and radiant wife, who had a diamond flower in each nostril.
Tiffin had been laid out on a round tin dish for each of us, except for the puri that Kalidas's wife fried there and then, along with some crackers shaped like ribbons and nests of noodles. There was sambar (lentil stew), dal, lentils with tamarind, sweet rice with curd, red jam. The two women served us, since they had already eaten. I did my best to eat properly with my fingers, and only with the right hand, feeling once again like a clumsy three-year-old. Kalidas scooped sauce and rice grains deftly into his mouth. Apurna slipped a spiraling "friendship ring" into my hand.
In Thanjavur, I walked around the immense vaulted halls of the art museum in a delighted daze. One sculpted Shiva was naked, a dog jumping at his feet, a cobra coiled around his loins; he held a drum in one hand, a bowl in the other. An entire hall was dedicated to Shiva Nataraja in all stages of the dance, from still to ecstatic, his left leg raised higher and higher as he progressed through the dance. One Shiva had his consort Parvati cocking her head from behind his shoulder. Another with "his one-half as Parvati" had a rounded breast and belly to indicate his feminine half, but his face was the same on both sides. At the exit, a large sign asked for contributions from "the viewing personages" to preserve "these icons…which are meaningfully mute with wordless expressiveness."
Thanjavur's Brihadishwara Temple on a Saturday evening: a courtyard and a colonnaded gallery of Shiva lingams—in just the first stretch I counted 122, but then the procession continued around the vast perimeters of the temple grounds, in different sizes, black and oiled. (I'm still not used to this phallic notion of grace, but it is so human: the deity's "body" is simplified into a carrier of grace, an erotic view of the world without which the world wouldn't exist.) Music on the loudspeakers. People streaming in, some sitting on the grass, some in the first court by the grinning black Nandi bull. The immense lingam enclosed in a dome made from a single piece of granite weighing 81 tons. The priest, too, portly, good-natured, and altogether less ascetic and drawn than the ones encountered so far.
Driving up to the Dakshinamurthy Temple in Alangudi, I couldn't help thinking of Pop art: two rows of elephants on the façade—larger ones on the bottom, tiny ones on top, all proceeding, tail to trunk and clockwise, around the little building. They were black with white tusks and eyes, on a green background, wearing yellow, turquoise, and red sashes on their backs. Above each elephant was an immense, six-petaled yellow, red, and pink flower (shaped like Warhol's). The door frame was turquoise ornamented with orange flowers, and the steps to the temple were in wide red-and-white stripes. It was like a fantastic toy house, and all around the clearing on which it stood were red earth houses with thatched roofs.
"Go to Chettinad," Clemente had told me. "There are some outlandish Roman villas with Italian marbles and teaks from Burma built in a deserted landscape, owned by industrialists who hardly ever live in them and whose children are mostly abroad." Sekar turned left, following a sign to AMM House, which, I noticed, was pronounced "Ay-yem-yem." It was a large cement mansion with a colonnaded portico. I was shown into the shady interior, all intarsia and geometrically tiled floors. The owners are manufacturers of toffee, fertilizer, and abrasives who live in Madras and come here "for functions—any function, good or bad," so the bailiff Iyengar, who's worked here since 1961, informed me.
Past the dowager's room with a wooden cot covered in straw matting was a courtyard with jackfruit, mango, and lemon trees. Three families can use this as a common house: by opening all the doors, you get a string of hallways spanning three houses. Two to three thousand people fit into the dining hall. Across the road, there is another house. "Relatives," Iyengar muttered.
I kept to Prema's strict dictum—"Even if you are starving, eat only idli, dosai, steamed rice, sambar, lentils, and bananas. Do not take chutneys or raw vegetables"—and I returned to Madras safe and sound.
On my last day, she took me to see the Krishnamurti Foundation. The vibrant stillness of the meditation hall again took me by surprise. Prema had known Krishnamurti, another extraordinary being, who used to tell his students in Ojai, California, "How can the mind be still when all the time it is chattering, chattering, chattering?"
I went to the Gandhi cooperative and bought cotton sarongs in every color of the rainbow, the legendary green and blue Madras checks, and fine, braided leather chappals. Then I asked to see a white shirt. A pile of lavender ones was brought to me. I said I liked the style, and did it come in white. "But madam," the salesman replied patiently, "this is white." Indian bleach turns whites a pale lilac. From the moment you become used to this possibility, that white can be lilac, the world and its seemingly rigid realities start to float pleasantly.
Did I get zapped?Yes, and the mind stopped chattering.
To see the many temples and rich landscape of Tamil Nadu, hire a car and driver—ask at your hotel desk or contact Balu Travel in Madras (91-44/8276-2020). Lonely Planet South India is a good guide to the state.
Where to Stay
Taj Coromandel Hotel 17 Nungambakkam High Rd., Madras; 91-44/827-2827, fax 91-44/825-7104; doubles from $176. Expensive but worth it, with an excellent south Indian restaurant.
Taj Fisherman's Cove Covelong Beach, Mahabalipuram; 91-4133/44304; doubles from $85. Wonderful bungalows overlooking a white-sand beach.
Park Guest House Goubert Salai, Pondicherry; 91-413/334-412; doubles from $9. Simple rooms with views of the sea. Bring a pillow.
Hotel Raya's 28—29 Head Post Office Rd., Kumbakonam; 91-435/432-170, fax 91-435/422-479; doubles from $13. Don't miss the Royal Suite, with mirrors on the ceiling and all walls.
Hotel Parisutham 55 Grand Anicut Canal Rd., Thanjavur; 91-4362/31801, fax 91-4362/30318; doubles from $100. Very comfortable, with a large pool and good restaurant.
Taj Garden Retreat Three miles south of Madurai at Pasumalai Hill; 91-452/601-020, fax 91-452/604-004; doubles from $132. Ask for one of the "Old World" rooms in the original colonial villa.
Kailasanatha Temple Kanchipuram. One of the most beautiful temples in Tamil Nadu, it's intimate and gets few visitors.
Varadaraja Perumal Temple Kanchipuram. Large and boisterous, with wandlike fluorescent lights protruding from the central tower.
Sabhanayaka Nataraja Temple Chidambaram. The home of the dancing Shiva. Go in the morning or at sunset to avoid crowds. On Fridays at 5 p.m. there is a Lakshmi festival: priests carry a palanquin with a statue covered in garlands.
Gangaikonda Choleswarar Temple Gangaikonda Cholapuram. Magically quiet and perfectly maintained Chola temple.
Nageswarar Temple Kumbakonam. Check out the orange columns in a yellow gallery and the graffiti on the back wall.
Thyagarajaswamy Temple Thiruvarur. A bit of a detour on the way to Thanjavur, this frescoed temple is reached via a wonderful country road that passes rice fields and palms.
Brihadishwara Temple Thanjavur. Astonishing rows of lingams. Go early or, for a different experience, just before sunset, when there are throngs of people and fire pujas.
Dakshinamurthy Temple Alangudi. Brightly colored little temple. Keep going on a road to the right of the temple to reach the Nayanmar forest temple, with hundreds of terra-cotta horses on either side of the road.
Sri Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple Madurai. A vast, rainbow-colored wedding-cake confection.
Kalakshetra Foundation Tiruvanmiyur, Madras; 91-44/491-1836. Go to watch classical southern Indian dance classes.Krishnamurti Foundation Vasanta Vihar, 64/5 Greenways Rd., Madras; 91-44/493-7803. Lovely meditation hall and grounds.Theosophical Society International Headquarters Adyar, Madras. More dilapidated than the Krishnamurti Foundation, but very atmospheric.Sri Aurobindo Ashram Rue de la Marine, Pondicherry; 91-413/339-648. A beautiful old building with a lush courtyard.Nayak Durbar Hall Art Museum Royal Palace Compound, E. Main St., Thanjavur. Fascinating collection, especially the hall with 20 or so sculptures of the dancing Shiva.
A TAMIL NADU ITINERARY
Day one: Spend the day in Madras (now officially Chennai, but still called by its former name), which has direct flights from several European cities.
Day two: Take a trip to nearby Kanchipuram and return to Madras.
Day three: Drive to Mahabalipuram (now officially Mammallapuram) and stay over.
Day four: Continue to Pondicherry, passing the tiny town of Dindivanam.
Day five: Take in the temples at Chidambaram and Kumbakonam.
Day six: Spend the day in Thanjavur.
Day seven: Drive to Chettinad—passing Pudukkottai, Tirumayam, and Alangudi—and continue on to Madurai.
Day eight: Return to Madras (about 275 miles).