Toys of childhood
My grandmother was like a chocolate fudge; brown skinned, squishy, sweet and very soothing. I hung around with her always and for that I often got ridiculed by older siblings and cousins as dadi-amma. But little did I care about any of those names. What I loved the most about being by her side was the phantasmagorical trips she took me on through her stories, rag-dolls and clay puppets on light-less nights. She was like, what I may equate her now with, virtual reality glasses. Her words and handcrafted dolls created a world never seen or heard before, a world riddled with mysteries and kindness, with lessons for life, and with brevity necessary for a tender soul. She was my portal to a world that comforted me, guided me and caressed my inquisitive mind.
My grandmother died when I was nine. With her ended my childhood, my frequent trips to mysterious lands and encounters with mesmerising mythic characters. I became an ordinary child in this ordinary world with ordinary friends. But the only extraordinary possessions I had were those rag-dolls, the memories of my grandmother crafting those puppets and her words engraved on my tabula-rasa. Soon I left my ancestral home and forgot about all of it until my own child reminded me of my childhood.
As my motherhood is progressing, my childhood memories are acquiring new meanings in light of the current discourses of art, gender and immigrant identities. Uprooted many times from homes that we lived in, until I moved away from the country of my origin, absence had a different meaning. Family acquired a different meaning when the absence of grandparents became evident for my child. A painful realisation of how my grandparents were a window to my cultural and historical past, my role as a mother became loaded with double responsibilities; to enlighten my child about his ‘past’ and shape his future. But home away from home devoid of physical and cultural markers of history, mythology and sounds, smell and colours, become a daunting task. This dual task transformed into a creative pursuit of revisiting my own childhood memories, and recreating them in physically perceivable form for my toddler.
My child’s childhood is devoid of his grandparents’ wealth of wisdom; a kind of wisdom that only the elderly in a household or community can bequeath to you. I carry only a bare fragment of that wisdom but this excuse cannot preclude me from giving my child a tour of the world I once inhabited; a world of unlimited possibilities. However, limited by my political, financial and material mobility and accessibility, with my first lessons from my childhood about using rags for ‘riches’, I embarked on a journey of recreating a ‘new’ world for my child.
Presence through absence
At least 98 handmade dolls, an eight-sided abstract seated form and three towering representative female mythological deities became a composite scene of my memories from my childhood. Connecting the dots marking absences to create a picture of ‘home’ and what it meant to be a child for me, was a healing process. A process that connected me to my child-self in the absence of my grandmother, my dadi.
I gleaned memories and reimagined my childhood days. I re-enacted crafting dolls with found materials, sewing eyes, lips and eyebrows like my dadi did. I sew dresses for those dolls using scraps that were donated to me by many people who connect with my ideas and practice at large. Picking threads from the textiles to sew on the dolls’ dresses was a secret I learnt at an early age. I am sure there were many more secrets and words of wisdom, but I am not consciously aware of many of them. Braiding, twisting, coiling, patching, appliqueing, knitting, crocheting and stitching all the used materials laden with memories of donors, I created a pastiche of my childhood. This reiteration of my past was an important act for my future, for my child and his future.
In retrospect, I know my grandmother was the ‘toy’ of my childhood, not the toys she made for me. I believe my dadi bequeathed me the love for the ‘process’ of creating. I find intense peace and a sense of fulfilment in the process of creating that itself becomes a driving force for me. What philosophers and spiritual mentors teach us ‘to-be-in-the-moment’, she lived her life like that. Now I live my life like my dadi. She was my first mentor and continues to be the most influential one till date.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Artist's Diary")
Mee Jey is an Indian immigrant artist based in St. Louis