(This article was first published in The Hindu.)
Have you ever been to a place hoping to fall in love? I have. Not often, just once. Towards the end of 2019, I was feeling overwhelmed by the pace of my life in Mumbai. I wanted to be someplace else where I could find my own rhythm. I chose Kolkata, and it did not take long to make that decision. I just followed my gut and set out. It is a city that makes my heart sing, especially at the onset of winter when I can wrap myself in a shawl, sip ginger tea from little earthen cups and practise my amateurish Bangla. When I feel happy and warm inside, love seems close at hand. Nothing seems impossible.
With this desire for romance coursing through my veins, I came across the poster for an art installation called ‘A Love Latika’ by artist-filmmaker Paromita Vohra. It was being hosted at the Max Mueller Bhavan. The timing seemed perfect. I found myself hanging on to every word of the description: “Enter an electronic painted forest that spreads across 4 LCD screens. Its unpredictable flora and fauna all hide erotic poems, waiting for the computer’s mouse to find them. A curious tap on a flower flings open its dreamy limbs. Fish turn thirsty for the grapes swelling with juice and swallow them whole — or are they swallowed up by the grapes?”
I needed to catch a breath and get myself a glass of water before I could read on. The note spoke of everything that is central to Vohra’s work. She is known for bringing the poetic into the polemical, celebrating sensuality, and reminding the world that consent can be talked about by foregrounding the pleasures we seek instead of focusing only on the demons we dread. “Gushing breeze awakens the pond and the ripples are wetter than ever. Approached by the cursor, the overripe sitaphal oozes desire. A light click seduces the seeds to burst open the fruit-skin. The forest unveils its lush growth and thrilled, the moon shoots high up in the sky!”
The art installation was ensconced in a dimly-lit private chamber of sorts, made from floral drapes rather than brick and mortar. Produced by Hamsi Manglani, animated by Stuti Bansal and coded by Harish Ranganathan, it was an oasis of tenderness in an otherwise formal space, inviting people like myself to walk in and listen.
All we had to do was put on the headphones, move the cursor over animated fruits and flowers, and wait for the poetry to flow out and wash over us. Centuries of poetry came gushing forth: from Mirabai’s ‘Dark One’ to D.H. Lawrence’s ‘The Elephant is Slow to Mate’, from Ikkyu’s ‘The Male Root’ to Akhil Katyal’s ‘I Want to 377 You So Bad’, and from ‘My Bare Legs’ in Gatha Saptasati to Warsan Shire’s ‘My Older Sister Soaps Between Her Legs’.
The ocean of feelings can be a scary place but skinny-dipping is recommended for one and all. Yes, there is the fear of drowning, and the anxiety of being eaten up by large aquatic creatures that pull you away from the shore. There is also the thrill of learning to swim with someone, and seeing yourself intimately through another pair of eyes. Vohra’s art installation was meant to get people to dive within themselves, and shed the layers of shame they have been asked to wear. It was a reminder that reaching out for poetry is not a lesser act than marching in the streets. People resist the harshness in their lives through a variety of ways.
Vohra’s selection of poetry included multiple languages such as English, Punjabi, Bhojpuri, Urdu, Sanskrit, Japanese, Arabic, Tamil, Prakrit, Marathi, Bangla and more. All the poems that were not in English were accompanied by a translation. What made the installation appealing for me was the fact that the poems were recorded in the voices of writers, artists and theatre practitioners — Nisha Susan, Devdutt Pattanaik, Amruta Patil, Sanjna Kapoor, Savitri Medhatul, Arundhati Ghosh, Sankalp Meshram and others — who have been exploring love in their own distinct ways in the work they produce. Each brought a flavour of their own personality into the installation.
There was hunger and ecstasy, longing and surprise, teasing and jealousy, hurting and vulnerability in those poems. They presented love in diverse forms and settings without feeling the need to capture it neatly in a definition. Minds, bodies and souls have love languages that are far subtler than the categories invented by scripture and scholarship. This fluidity of desire, and its capacity to move and transform, was at the core of Vohra’s installation.
As I put down the headphones and walked out, a feeling of hope enveloped my being. I mustered the courage to speak to someone I met just a few days before. We had enjoyed a beautiful evening together. There was laughter in the air, and the recognition of something special. It was too early to crystallise the nature of what we felt for each other, to give it a name. Yet there was an urgency to throw open the floodgates of feeling. It seemed foolish to stay quiet and protect myself from imagined hurt. If heartbreak was meant to happen, it would. The poems would have my back.