“It’s only recently that the great mass of Indians have begun to feel that rising in the world and becoming rich was a good thing, a valuable thing,” says Asha Amemiya.
|Textile artist Asha Amemiya|
“Before that they had a different value system. In their thousands of years of history there hadn’t been much change in values. For example, one has to ask why so many millions of people looked to Gandhi and thought his ideals of simple living without money were so meaningful.”
I am speaking with the textile artist as she lounges back on the wooden floorboards of her home in the mountains of southern Shikoku. Her three daughters are constantly nearby, asking questions, making food, straightening the house or correcting their mother’s mispronunciations of Bengali words that come up in the conversation.
The family returned from India about five years ago after more than a decade in the state of Western Bengal, and the two older daughters still sometimes banter back and forth with each other in Bengali.
|Batik work by Asha Amemiya.|
All three girls were born in India, which, according to Amemiya, is a much safer place to give birth than Japan. This rather startling opinion, uttered in her tough, husky voice, seems emblematic of her wonderfully knotty persona. When I ask her what she means, she replies, “Well, in Japan, they do all kinds of things to you and the child in the hospital without asking you, even if you don’t want them to: pumping you full of drugs and inoculations, etc. That never happened to me in India.”
When Amemiya and her partner Koichi Yamashita (profiled in Alternative Luxuries, Sept. 7) returned to Japan, the land of their birth, they settled in a small village in Kochi Prefecture that invited them to join in a mura okoshi (village revitalization) program to resettle depopulated rural areas.
One of the reasons they came back was to enable the girls to learn their mother tongue, Japanese. But another reason was that by the 1990s, India had changed so much that they felt that there was no longer any reason to be there at all. Says Amemiya, “the spread of television and cars, new houses — it was getting to be as bad as Japan.”
One attraction of India in the first place was the way Indians think about the flow of time.
|Batik work by Asha Amemiya.|
“We were freer and had more time in India,” says Amemiya. “Overall, Japanese people are more restless, and hurried, and there are lots of happenings you have to appear at. Today, for example, I had to show my face at some event at the nursery school, even though I didn’t want to. I had to go. Even if I have no intention of keeping pace with people here, I often just have to.
“In India, there’s none of that kind of stuff. The difference is as large as that between a local train and a bullet train.”
She attributes it partly to the heat but more to differences in philosophy. “In Japan, if a job can be done today, people say it should be done today — even if it’s painful and causes a lot of strain. The focus of thinking in Japan is economics. Even politics are more like a form of economics than an attempt to realize an ideal society. In India there are a tremendous number of people who are thinking and talking about what kind of a society is ideal.”
During her time on the subcontinent, Amemiya spent years studying techniques of vegetable-based dyeing in various textile centers in Nepal and India. Much of her recent work is done with a wax-resist dyeing method most commonly known today as batik, a Javanese word. Amemiya tells me, however, batik was originally an Indian technique that spread to Indonesia and was subsequently lost in India. Its revival in India owes much to the work of the poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941).
In one of Amemiya’s cloth hangings, an undulating orange and red-hued sunset creates a sense of dramatic movement behind a massive-trunked tree. One of Tagore’s poems, rendered into Japanese, flows down the right side. Another piece is a spiraling red and orange composition in which tiny particles, which might be either flower petals or falling leaves, transubstantiate into streaming Bengali script.
Many of the poems in her work speak of the joys of gazing into the face of an infant, or of the life of young girls and women in agricultural society: things which Amemiya feels very deeply.
Through her batik work, as well as in the progress of her own life and in the raising of her daughters, Amemiya has realized a synthesis of Japanese and South Asian culture, and a reinterpretation of them both in so doing.
“To me,” she says, “tradition is a wisdom and intelligence that an individual human is unable to accomplish in one lifetime, or in one generation. It’s a way of feeling and of understanding that has been created over long years by a whole society or culture.”
Naturally, such an intricately latticed understanding cannot be instantly comprehended by those entering from afar.
“To really know a whole place — the land, the people, everything — takes a lot of time,” says Amemiya. “It was only after five years that I truly grasped the beauty of Bengal. That was also when I began to really understand and love Tagore.”
Tagore, who won the Nobel Prize in 1913, wrote more than 50 volumes of poetry, as well as musical and dance dramas, essays, travel diaries and two autobiographies. He was also an accomplished painter, composed hundreds of songs and founded a system of experimental schools in Shantiniketan, a rural town north of Calcutta where Amemiya lived for most of her decade in India. Tagore’s educational philosophy is based on his Upanishadic ideals and, most importantly to Amemiya, places a great emphasis on the “cultivation of sentiments.”
“At Shantiniketan,” Amemiya explains, “hours of every day are spent in having the children and young adults sing songs, make drawings and read and listen to poetry. The point of this is not so much the work itself but helping the child cultivate her receptivity and finer sensibilities.”
In the evening, Amemiya takes out a thick book of Tagore’s poems and songs, hardbound in beautiful Indian cloth. The children gather around her, pointing excitedly at one or the other of the poems, occasionally breaking into Bengali.
Then the oldest daughter, Himalie, 15, in response to the urgings of her younger sisters, treats us to a short performance of Indian classical dance, while she sings along in the ululating quartertones of the Indian musical scale. Her sisters clap along in rhythm.
Watching the lively performance by a Japanese girl of a traditional Indian cultural art, I am reminded once again how wonderful and nourishing it is to live in and know other cultures, and to enrich one’s own culture and life with their generous fruits.