Where do we come from?

May 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

Last Monday, my Patient-Doctor I group celebrated the end of a year of learning how to take patient interviews in a thoughtful and compassionate way by making a trip to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Once there, we were handed cards with cues to find works of art that matched a certain theme: find a work of art that reflects a great change in your life; find a work of art that speaks to a struggle you’ve overcome; find a work of art that reminds you of yourself etc etc.

My little pulse of thought was to find a work of art that reminds you of an earlier stage of life. At this point in the semester, I considered myself well-acquainted with the MFA. Another friend in my PD-1 group, M, and I were both taking an art class called Training the Eye, for which we came to the museum every Friday to appreciate art, sketch, and talk about the connections between art and science. I ran through the different wings of the museum in my mind, and without stopping to smell the flowers, ran upstairs past a series of Classical busts, past Manet, Monet and Degas, past large Romanesque rugs and chairs to the large French room that held this gem by Jean Baptiste-Camille Corot:

Corot. Forest of Fontainebleau. 1846

I told my group that despite the fact that this painting was a French pastoral, it reminded me strongly of my time in India. I lived for a short time in a small town in south India, on the banks of a small river, a life in harmony with the trees and birds and fish, small and enclosed but utterly peaceful and beautiful also. How things change, I remarked. Six years ago, I would have never guessed that I would leave that life behind, move across the world and begin anew as a medical student and professional dilettante.

This was the literal transition.

On Friday, I found myself at the MFA again, this time with my art class, and we grouped around Paul Gaugin’s 1897 existential Tahitian painting: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

Classmates reflecting on Gaugin

We use a learning technique called Visual Thinking Strategies, in which after about five minutes of quiet examination, an art educator prompts us to voice our observations and responses to the artwork. We are encouraged not to look at the descriptive placards, or even the name of the work or the artist but focus instead on the primary document itself.

My classmates discussed how the painting seemed to depict quite literally, the three fundamental questions. The painting is like a supreme masterpiece, and reads from right to left, in its depiction of young women with a baby to a youth plucking fruit, and another child eating fruit on the floor, to the final section where a young woman broods and an old woman, pallor, grey hair, and a wist of nostalgia, or perhaps regret in her expression, prepares to die. A blue idol in the background suggests the need or omnipresent spirituality in the scene, and in life.

Blue idol

I remember standing with my group, my attention wandering by this point, as it was close to an hour since we had been discussing art at the museum on a Friday afternoon after a monumental Immunology final, and I was sleepy and tired and ready to be done. But as I stared at the painting, I noticed that my gaze lingered on this blue idol and I couldn’t understand why this struck a cord with me. A classmate had even remarked that in this painting, Gaugin had been a bit sloppy about proportions of the different figures and though each character looked human enough, none had photographic accuracy. This was true of the blue idol as well.

I went home and began to look through my old digital albums, specifically my India collections, and came across this:

statue of Annamayya, Chinna Tirumala, south India

Here is the metaphorical transition, and possibly, the better depiction of change. The statue is that of Annamacharya, a Telugu composer and songmaster of the Tirumala temples who composed thousands of keertana songs in honor of Lord Venkateshwara. I snapped this shot when I visited the temple site on a trip when I was fourteen. Even then, I found myself drawn to the statue. It stood a few stories tall, in the lawns outside the temple, and was just so majestic and inspiring that I couldn’t resist staring at it.

From Annamayya to Paul Gaugin, my transitions have been entirely in the experiences that were offered to me. I’d like to think that I’m somehow different, that I’m older and wiser, more mature and more cultured, that my opinions are now thoughtful where they were not before and that the way I express them is neater and more interesting.But is that all what counts? Am I in anyways better than I was six years before because I can name-drop writers of the Zadie Smith and Philip Roth ilk and visit the fancy Boston museums every week instead of waking up at 6 AM everyday to help roll chapatis and do my Hindi homework?


What’s probably more constructive than comparing my own transitions is to fix myself in place and marvel at the transitions in my world. I’m still seeing awe-inspiring blue idols. But instead of out in the fields through hazy beams of sunlight and incense, I’m seeing them in airconditioned gallery spaces with a sketchbook in hand and a wild and ever-expanding vocabulary at my disposal. That’s all.

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