How time flies...

How time flies...

fleeting moments

How time flies...

painting of Vishwamitra being seduced by Menaka. photo srinath perur

In the somehow timeless complex of Mysore’s Devaraja Market is a nook that specialises in salvaged calendar art — faded, fragile prints of once colourful gods and goddesses.

One of the few exceptions in the parade of divinity here is the scene of Menaka’s seduction of Vishwamitra, painted in so many ways by different artists. The setting is always one of idealised nature — landscaped vegetation, mountain peaks, compulsory flowing water — but each artist chooses a slightly different moment to depict the interaction between the sage and the nymph.

The chipped blue frame with which I walked out of Devaraja market captures the instant at which Vishwamitra is drawn from his austerities. In other prints that show this moment, his expression is one of dismay or anger. Here, it is gentler. There is temptation in his eyes and a hint of weary knowingness that anyone who has wrestled with their mind will be familiar with, something that says, “Oh, well. Here we go again.”

Why is the scene so popular? Partly, no doubt, due to it being an erotic scene
rendered respectable by its puranic roots.  It probably also has something to do with our own yearning for focus and concentration, and the repeated scuttling of our efforts in that direction. Our lives all play out at the same rate — second by second — but our subjective experience of time can be vastly different.

Time’s relentless and terrifying march is blunted by our capacity for reverie, for entering zones of timelessness. We are, perhaps existentially, at our most graceful while in a state of constructive absorption. Though most of us will hang on to such a state only fleetingly, we still aspire to it.

Compare and contrast

In these terms, the popular counterpart in classical art to distractable Vishwamitra might be Michelangelo’s David. Other depictions of the biblical story show David in action or triumphant in victory. They all touch the part of us that feels generally under-clothed and ill-equipped to take on a brutish world and reassure us that it can be done. But only Michelangelo, by depicting David at the moment of gathering himself in concentration, tells us how.

The Argentine writer, Borges, offers a physical realisation of creative absorption in his story, The Secret Miracle. A writer in Prague, Jaromir Hladik, is sentenced to death by a firing squad. As the moment of his execution approaches, he realises that his definitive work as an artist, a drama in verse, is incomplete. He prays to God for a year’s time, the time he thinks he will need to finish the play to his satisfaction.

On the morning of his execution, the order to fire is given and the world goes still around Hladik. His prayer has been answered. He works on his play for a year, writing and rewriting in his head, with the firing squad frozen in front of him. He finishes and the bullets smack into his body.

Concentration and distraction

If one sort of concentration can keep death at bay, another sort can kill. The title of American writer, David Foster Wallace’s second novel, Infinite Jest, comes from the Shakespeare scene in which Hamlet holds the exhumed skull of the jester Yorick and remembers him as “a fellow of infinite jest”. In Wallace’s novel, Infinite Jest is the name of a film that is so compulsively entertaining that its viewer forgets his bodily needs and watches transfixed until he drops dead.

Kannada writer Lankesh invokes the story of the 1,001 nights in his essay, Naaneke bareyuttene (Why I write), to allude to the power a writer commands in being able to both captivate and distract. Scheherazade, Lankesh writes, saved her own life by keeping the king engrossed in her stories. But in doing this, she also saved the lives of the other young women who would night after night have taken her place in the king’s chamber.

As a consequence, this lightened the moral burden of her husband. She not only saved, but also proliferated life: Fertile not only in imagination, and possessed with an enviable ability to multi-task, she is supposed to have borne the king’s three children in that period. Eventually, three years of listening to her stories reformed the serial-killer king, and the world could breathe easier. And of course, Scheherazade’s stories remain for the
diversion of generations after her.

Maybe it is a gift after all to remain vulnerable to distraction, to be able to withdraw, renew and re-engage, to not be bound absolutely to the preoccupations of one’s fallible mind. Vishwamitra, never one for half measures, spent a decade with Menaka in a haze of love.

Then, distracted from his distraction, he lamented, “Ten years have rolled by as if they were just a day and a night.” He abandoned Menaka and returned to his austerities, but the Lankesh school of accountancy would note that his interlude with Menaka produced a daughter, Shakuntala, and from her descended a star-cast of characters including Bharata, who in myth-history gave a country his name and its first idea of itself, and the Pandavas.

This article too might be considered a child of distraction. Trying to concentrate on something else, my eyes wandered over to the wall where the print I had bought from Devaraja Market was hanging, and I began to wonder just what it was with that scene.