By Suma Varughese
Artists Vidya and Baiju Parthan live a life of conscious frugality, detachment and the cultivation of awareness.
Baiju: We met at The College of Art, Goa, in the late ’70s, early ’80s. She was 15 and I was 23. I had already done a B.Sc and was halfway through engineering when I decided to pursue art instead. That was the time of the hippie movement and I got exposed to the flower generation. Coming from conservative Kerala, it was a revelation to see how happy these non-conformists were. It was startling to discover that you didn’t have to toe the line. I learnt to question Establishment values and even totally lost faith in them for a phase. I gradually defined my own principles… I used to talk to all my fellow students, including Vidya, about the books I had read. I was trying to discover my worldview and was suffering immensely. I had gone through an existential crisis at age 10 when it hit me that there was no meaning to the life most people led, of studying, getting a job, marrying, having children and grooming them to do the same thing. Through the hippies I got glimpses of my worldview. Then I had a massive spiritual experience in 1981 that changed my life forever. I woke up one day and found that my self had dissolved. Or rather its limits had. When I touched a chair it became a part of me. I was everywhere. I knew the riddle of existence. And I realized that the most important thing in the world was to get into that state of mind permanently. I used to discuss this with Vidya and others.
Vidya: Baiju was a mentor. He influenced me a great deal. We started walking the path together. Both of us have a fascination for knowledge, which is the foundation of our relationship. He would tell me what to read and we would then discuss it together. We were absorbed in trying to understand life.
Baiju: There are fundamental questions one tries to answer through the pursuit of knowledge. As your knowledge increases your awareness grows and with it your experience of life becomes more vivid and expansive. Every event gives you knowledge. Even a little stone lying on the road can give you immense learning if you are receptive to it. Cultivating this orientation is very much a part of our spirituality.
Vidya: At some point I realized that I never wanted to stop growing intellectually and spiritually. I come from a wellknown, affluent and respected Goan family. So when the proposals came in I told my mother I didn’t want to be part of a man’s life to be equated with his bungalow, car, and driver. The idea was suffocating to me. It was then that I suggested to Baiju that we should get married. Ours was not a love story…
Baiju: We are actually two friends who decided to live together and journey through life. For us, life is an experiment.
Vidya: Baiju made all these conditions. We won’t have children, I cannot give you a car and a bungalow. Are you ready? I was prepared for that. I didn’t want that other life of suffocating conventionality. Monetarily, it was many rungs below for me. I had never cooked in my life for my mother’s home always had servants. We lived in a small one-room kitchen in Vashi. My sisters would visit me there and moan, ‘What misery!’ But I was happy. Money was not a priority.
Baiju: We would look at their lives and think, what misery!
Vidya: Life in those days was thrilling. We were reading exciting books together. It was a continuation of our classes. We were constructing our worldview together. It was like venturing out into the jungle and forging out a path by flashing a torchlight before us. We were not very social but we had this exciting world of art, philosophy and spirituality that sustained and fulfilled us.
Baiju: We realize that life processes are meant to make awareness grow. And depending on the knowledge, your world can be narrow or vast, low or high. One adjusts one’s life to facilitate the acquisition of more knowledge and awareness. Over time, this awareness has given rise to certain insights. One is that everything passes and that in the material world everything, including our lives, is transitory. Also, an ethical sensibility comes into life. As they say in Vipassana, dhamma is the law of life. A rightness comes into life which is a natural expression of who you are. It has nothing to do with a moral code. For instance, you respond to the environment as if you were a part of it and not outside it, and therefore find yourself caring for it naturally.
You also start connecting to a larger intelligent force. As your awareness grows, your notion of God becomes loftier and more abstract. Indian philosophy has one of the most abstract notions of God in advaita-brahman. Today, I would see God as a large intelligence of which I am a part. We are not separate from it. This knowledge makes you very responsible for your actions. You also know that there is an equilibrium of sorts. This corresponds roughly to the Indian system of karma, but it applies to every act, every possession. If you have extra wealth, at some time you will have less; what is full becomes empty and what is empty becomes full. If you are sad, happiness will follow. If you take extra today, you will have less tomorrow.
Baiju: After we got married, I stopped doing art for two reasons. One was my residual anti-Establishment sentiment. Secondly, I became more interested in cultural studies. Vidya and I did a fascinating course in mythology at the Bombay University and I got quite immersed in the pursuit of mythology. I realized that mythology is the basis of all civilization. It is this that brought me back to art. I understood that art has a role; it can influence worldview. Around that time I saw a work of art by the artist Shakti Burman, which seemed to come from a familiarity with mythology. I could relate to it and felt that I could also do work like that. That is when I decided to recapture the romance and heroism of the artist’s world that I had walked away from. I use my art to concretise my worldview. My work is about points of departure of various kinds. We humans have an instinct to transcend the familiar. That’s what has kept humanity progressing. In my work, I take familiar objects and break out into a point of departure. That’s how I live my life too.
Vidya: There is no role play. Yes, I cook and he is the principle bread-winner, but there is no rigidity to these roles. If I don’t want to cook, then he does. And if he doesn’t want to play breadwinner, I will take over. There is a tremendous space that this engenders in the relationship. His work schedule is very erratic. His studio is only five minutes away from here, but there are days when he is so immersed in work that he doesn’t come home. Being an artist myself, I understand the demands of the creative process.
The Problem of Plenty
Vidya: Baiju is now a successful artist and therefore we have money. One big issue for us is how to address this. When we got married we had nothing. Now we have a car, a driver, a big three-bedroom apartment, everything. I often ask Baiju, will you be able to walk away from all this? So far we both feel we can, and that gives us sufficient detachment to enjoy this phase in life too. Tomorrow I can live in a small house and not feel regret. After all, I did it when I got married.
Baiju: We lived in Nalla Sopara for a very long time and although the traveling was hectic, we enjoyed our life. In fact, I, particularly, didn’t want to let it go, didn’t want a house with so many rooms, but one shouldn’t get attached to frugality either. The less items you have, the less responsibility. In this profession, there are no guarantees and we are prepared for all eventualities. We make the effort to be frugal. If you notice, the walls of this house are perfectly bare, despite being an artist. We consciously cultivate the philosophy of using only what we need.
Vidya: Having said that I have to say that Baiju is a gizmo freak and has four to five computers. One questions, does he need so many computers?
Baiju: (not very convincingly) I see them as tools for my work. A lot of my work is computer generated and when I am working, I can’t spare it, so there has to be one for Vidya. And there has to be a portable for when one is traveling.
Vidya: Baiju and I often think of leaving all this behind and starting a small dhaba in some distant place.
Baiju: I can see us doing that.
Vidya: What about your computers?
Baiju: I’ll let them go as long as I can have a broadband connection, please!
Vidya: We consciously cultivate detachment. In fact, Baiju made me burn our wedding photos because he didn’t want us to be burdened by the memory of it. My mother was aghast.
Vidya: The most important thing is to grow intellectually, emotionally, spiritually.
In fact I feel the day we stop growing, our relationship will collapse. One must have a goal that is larger than one’s own needs and desires in order to be able to grow.
Baiju: One should never lose the sense of mystery about life. The pursuit of knowledge is about resolving this mystery. And presumably, the enlightened person has resolved it.
Baiju: We have both done Vipassana. And we sit together for an hour everyday in meditative silence. It is part of our bonding. We may not be saints, but the important thing is that we never stop trying to get better.
Vidya: The most important knowledge is awareness of death. You know that everything is temporary and that everything has a duration. We often talk about the death of the other. What if one of us dies? Will the other have the will and strength to walk the path alone? So far we have done it together.
Baiju: There is a great comfort about having a worldview shared by many. Here, it is just two of us holding it. However, we know that if death happens we must take it as a new form of knowledge, and move on.
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