The way of the open palm: Writer and artist Shakti Maira’s wife Swati Chopra recounts his final year

Despite the pandemic, the periodic lockdowns and the peaks and crests of Shakti’s health, the last year of his life was active and dynamic – a lot of it joyful, and some not. We spent months alone at home, never feeling “cooped up”, content in each other’s company (mostly), and engaged with work, managing the exigencies of the situation, slipping into deep discussions about everything.

The biggest of our concerns was an impending shift to a new home that was delayed by several months when construction stopped during the lockdown. Despite his fragile health, and the ever-looming threat of infection, Shakti orchestrated it almost entirely, the brain of the project, with me providing support as the “arms and legs”, so to speak.

One of the most arduous tasks of packing up the old house (which included the ground floor where Shakti’s mother had lived before her passing in January 2019) for Shakti was packing up his studio. It was on the barsaati of his parents’ home – built by his father above the first floor several years earlier, at a time when Shakti, who lived in the US at the time, was looking for a base in Delhi.

As Shakti would recount, he was about to put down a deposit for a place in Khirki when his father said, “I will build you a studio right here,” and proceeded to do so. It was the studio that Shakti returned to upon leaving the US for good in 2000, and it was his temporary residence for a while too.

Artists’ studios are almost an extension of themselves, I believe. The studio is not just a place; it is at different times a womb where ideas are gestated, a laboratory where experiments are conducted, a playground, a workspace, a gallery, a storage unit, a hangout, et al. Shakti’s studio had a large terrace that abutted its airy, sunny work area, a small bedroom (which eventually became storage) with an attached bath and a little kitchen where in earlier years we cooked several one-pot pasta meals often with the ‘stinky’ cheeses Shakti was fond of bringing back from his travels.

Much more than the first floor, where we had moved in to be near Shakti’s mother who was in her nineties at the time, it was his studio of four decades or so that he was despondent about leaving. We had provisioned for a studio in the new home – a front bedroom converted into a hall-like space by removing the bathroom, it looked out into the spacious front balcony where a small work area for sculpting had been designated. It was designed according to Shakti’s specifications, but it was not his yet. It would need to be worked in, and dreamt in, and experimented in to come alive. It was as yet in the future, a future that was destined to remain in our dreams though we did not know it yet.

So, starting mid-November 2020, with assistance from two helpers and me, Shakti began to pack up his studio. He had moved several times in his life, across cities and continents and countries, but somehow, we knew this would be his last move. We never talked about it, but I knew and I think he did too.

Shakti Maira and Swati Chopra.

Shakti set about it in the manner that he approached so much difficult emotional work – with patience, focus, and witness consciousness. His palm always open, never grasping at anything – people, experiences, the past, plans for the future, even his health. It was something he and Godwin Samararatne, a meditation teacher Shakti had forged a deep friendship with during his years in Sri Lanka in the 1980s, often discussed.

The mind had to open like the fist, and let go of anything and everything it held on to. “Just know, and let go,” was Shakti’s single sentence advice to me when I was preparing to go for my first vipassana retreat. It is something I still whisper to myself occasionally. Know, become aware, open the fist, let go.

Shakti’s “way of the open fist/palm” was so much in evidence as his health declined. As someone who had been a sportsperson all his life, and who could run, walk, swim and climb with fluid ease, he found his physical abilities greatly diminished. In the last couple of years, he was plagued by a series of bacterial infections after a toxic shock episode during a chemotherapy infusion that seriously compromised his lungs. He lost close to forty kilograms, was greatly weakened, and yet his spirit shone bright and carried him through.

Rather than lament what he had lost, he worked with what he had. Unable to go out for walks, he asked for an exercise bicycle. From being at the periphery of his physical activity, yoga took centerstage. Later, even these were replaced by physiotherapy exercises and blowing into a spirometer to increase his lung capacity.

The value of physical exercise was one of the millions of life-lessons I have learnt from Shakti. It started with long morning walks in the initial years that took us to the minor and major monuments of Delhi, and him teaching me the meditative, almost dance-like Tai Chi Chuan. What I learned now was to not hold on to any fixed idea of who or what one is, to always be real to the reality of what is right now, to place oneself squarely in the present moment.

Because he was always so present in every moment, whatever he was doing or whomever he was with or even by himself, I have great difficulty thinking or talking about Shakti in the past tense. For me, he still is, and this is-ness is not corporeal or even that of a spirit or soul. It is his quality of being that is in this, the ever-present now.

A bout of bacterial pneumonia led to urgent hospitalisation in October. The pandemic’s first wave was winding down. From his window in the ICU, Shakti spotted a pair of hornbills on the tree outside. Hornbills, a rarity in Delhi, would often visit his mother’s garden and our balcony.

In the ICU, Shakti felt as if his old friends had turned up to visit. As the IV course of antibiotics took effect, he grew steadily stronger. I gave him the Olympics mantra – citius, altius, fortius (swifter, higher, stronger) which made him smile. We agreed to work towards that at all levels once he was discharged, and we did.

Our stringently vegetarian kitchen had already opened up to eggs, and we now added a daily dose of fish and chicken soup for him, the raw material sourced on an online app and with me learning simple recipes that maximised nutrition. His “rakhi sister”, Maya, lovingly sent over nutritious bone soup periodically, along with other goodies from her ever-generous kitchen.

To improve his lung function, Shakti returned to his early morning riyaaz, deepening and lengthening the notes in the dhrupad form that he had been learning before the pandemic lockdown stopped in-person classes with a teacher from the Gundechas’ Dhrupad Sansthan in Bhopal.

Shakti and I would often think of Kumar Gandharva, the legendary musician who sang for a long part of his life on one functioning lung after a bout of tuberculosis and being told by doctors he would never sing again. We believed in the restorative power of music, and its effect on the body’s energy system – something Shakti had received firsthand knowledge of when he took lessons from Ustad Rahim Fahimuddin Dagar for a while in the mid-2000s.

As Shakti’s strength seemed on the ascendant, he began planning the move for the first week of January. In a monumental undertaking, our things were shifted in two lots. In between, we ferried the most precious and breakable things in our cars to the new house that was merely a few minutes’ drive away. On 14 January, on the blessed day of Makar Sankranti, we officially moved in.

Shakti Maira with his book, ‘The Promise of Beauty’.

In the weeks that followed, as we began settling in, Shakti carefully choreographed the placement of art all around the house. The corridor that runs through its length was transformed into an art gallery of sorts, lined with paintings and sculpture. All the rooms showcased his different series of paintings.

Books, music and art were the overarching themes of the house – others might have expensive furniture or gadgets, this is what we had, we decided, and filled our home with them. Books from my mother-in-law’s eclectic collection that started in the 1920s and continued till her death, through Shakti’s own enviable collection of books on art, Buddhism, spirituality, politics, philosophy, psychology and everything in between, to mine from college till date plus the ones I published as part of my publishing career at Penguin and more recently at HarperCollins. They lined our walls and shelves and inspired me to make the seemingly impossible pledge to read each one under our roof.

Ever since I have known him, Shakti has always had a book in his hand or beside him. When the pandemic lockdown ensured we couldn’t buy physical books, he turned to his Kindle that he otherwise was not very fond of reading on. Kept away from his studio by his increasing frailty, he began work on a book that we discussed endlessly – his autobiography.

An extremely private person, to the extent that he did not disclose his illness even to those he was close to, he agreed that there might be some value to bringing the story of an artist’s maturing and the influences that had shaped his life, his art and his vision. Shakti remained deeply concerned about the increasing narrowing of focus, the over-specialisation, so to speak, where if one were a banker one knew little about art or spirituality and vice versa. Through his exploration of beauty as a fundamental principle of existence, his hope was to help people become more aware of, and connected with, the deeper dimensions of life and reality. Indeed, this was true of his art-making too.

So for a time before the move and then once we were ensconced in our lovely art-filled home, Shakti began to write about his journey. He read his at-times meticulous, at-times haphazard journals, made notes, wrote a chapter, and sent it to me. I went over it, did what we in publishing call a “primary edit” (content, structure, form), and sent it back to him. He went over my comments, reworked what he agreed with, and saved the version on a pen drive.

For the two decades that we were together, I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have been his first editor – “my editor” as opposed to the “publisher’s editor” as he liked to joke – on almost everything he wrote, published and unpublished, articles and books. It is my sincere hope that in the time to come, I will be able to complete his autobiography, with his journals whispering his thoughts in my ears and guiding my fingers as I try to commit to paper an extraordinary life that immeasurably enriched this world.

I leave you with the opening lines from his introduction:

“Sometimes, it has seemed to me that art has become completely bled of its social connective functions. A blocking layer of art specialists – curators, gallerists, theorists, critics – stand between the artist and his community. The artist is some sort of weird specialist, a gnome, who makes art for these intermediaries, who in turn decide what reaches the public. Further, it has been the years when art has become a sort of branded commodity. The motivation to engage in art of the patrons is tuned to commercial interests. Art has become an investment vehicle. The higher the price the better the art. The many forms of everyday art making – painting village walls, haystacks, just arranging one’s homes aesthetically – have been completely swept aside. Artists are specialists, the rest of us are at best consumers of art. Most recently, art has become digital and ownership through NFTs is the trend. Conceptual art meets conceptual money (cryptocurrencies). What will it mean to be an artist in the future?

“There is a story-of-our-times dimension to the story of art and being an artist. Telling it through my own story seemed a way for me to reflect and share ideas and values about art and art-making. This is the intention of this writing.”

I hope, one day in the not-too distant future, Shakti’s interrogation of the meaning of art and what it means to be an artist, what it meant for him to be an artist, will be in your hands. Until then, there is his expansive and multilayered immersion in beauty: The Promise of Beauty and Why it Matters.

Swati Chopra has worked for two decades in journalism, media and publishing. She is at present Executive Editor at HarperCollins India. Prior to publishing, she worked as a journalist and has written five books, including Dharamsala Diaries and Women Awakened.

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