Buddha, Einstein and I

Long, long, ago in second century India, the Buddhist master, Nagarjuna, made the most stunning discovery of all. He professed that the true nature of phenomena that make up our experience of the world can neither be proven to exist or not-exist. In short, this world and our experience in it as observers was neither real nor unreal.

It is interesting to note that he only negated the true existence of all phenomena, he did not indulge his disciples by proposing yet another theory of how the world really works. This was not because he had an incapable imagination but simply due to his understanding of our intellectual limitation. According to him the ultimate truth of the world and its workings were simply beyond comprehension.

Years later, a young physicist in Europe proposed the theory of relativity, which is effectually a theory of measurement, proving that time and space can distort, depending on the position of the observer, even when the speed of light remains constant. Therefore, all the science we can know of is limited to our experience of our world, which may not be the science of the universe as it truly exists.

So even in this postulation there is sufficient room for doubt both of how we experience our world and of how the world truly exists independent of our observations. The irony being that the observer is in the way of our understanding the ultimate truth because of his own observations.

The similarities of these two theories proposed hundreds of years apart, one by intuitive deduction and the other by scientific enquiry does not startle me in as much as it strengthens my conviction that most human disciplines lead to the same inconclusive conclusion.

Anyhow! How does this effect my own small world and my own insignificant observations is something that I ask over and over? Knowledge of our perceptive limitation, does not entirely change our instinctual or habitual reactions.

 I don’t wonder if a child that fell off the monkey bar is real or unreal, I rush to aid her. I don’t doubt the time on my watch, I show up on time to all my planned engagements. I don’t question the pain of my twisted ankle, I care for it with medication. Much of our work, our reactions and our interpretations of things around us is based on the experience that we have of it whether it is ultimately real or unreal.

Perhaps someday humans will evolve with greater perceptive powers. Perhaps the metaphorical cave that we are tethered to as Plato suggested will open up and we will no longer have to base our understanding based on the shadows that we see on the cave wall. But until then we all remain vulnerable and we are all bound to the uniqueness of our own projective experiences.

Nagarjuna, was a great proponent of compassion. After exposing that the Buddha’s teachings and the Buddha himself was subject to questionable existence, he dedicated all of his findings to Buddha the ‘Compassionate One’. Speculating about our suffering does not mitigate the pain of its experience, compassion does! Einstein too, I hear was an immensely compassionate human.

What if compassion is the only antidote available to us all? What if the only way out of all our problems is our own softening with kindness to our unique individual experience? For, if human relationships form the crux of human happiness then without forgiveness and compassion there is not one human who can withstand his own perceptive limitation.

---Vandana Nittoor


while I wait...

Dear Life, while I eagerly wait,

body tipped on achy toes, for you to share

the script you wrote out for me in secret

and without my consultation…

I wish to ask, yet I’m hesitant

If you consider yourself a fair person?


For, what if, like me,

you too, lash out in anger at impatience,

forget the joy with which I receive you each morning

and hand out to me an excruciating circumstance

to act out in solo?


I wish to ask again and I hold back in fear

What of my child, the one on whom my life’s labors are spent

will you be kind, to her? Will you make room

in the places where she is as yet unready

to face the world and allow her the time she needs

for preparation?


What is to become of my dreams? These few ones

carefully picked on that special day

when you and I were friends and shared the same vision,

those same ones that you encouraged me to toil at

and give it my all. Will you set forth, a simple warning?

A small gesture, a wink, a nod, perhaps even a doubt

before you yank it out from under my feet

and forever change my view.


Tell me, if in this world where you put me in

And gave me the impression that I was in charge

Am I meant to discover who it is I am and know it for certain

Or if who I am and what I am is to forever change depending

on where you place me and what you ask of me to do?


Now that we have reached these crossroads

And I reluctantly let go of my old habits and follow

your fancy. Let me speak and tell you that the deed is done

and it is too late now, for I fully know who it is that I am

and that which I’m meant to do. So, even as you lead,

upon whichever road, wretched, thorny, smooth, joyous, dry,

scenic or bland, I shall write my ode and draw your image

for I have never forgotten the privilege of being alive and loving you.

 ----Vandana Nittoor

Portrait Painting - Why?

Portrait Painting – Why ?

Let me begin by telling you that I will never have rigid and stable answers to questions about my art. Like everything within and around me that is subject to constant change, I expect my artistic process to evolve and simply be reflective of my current state of being.

While stillness in moments is infinitely refreshing, stillness in a non-evolving, stationary life reeks of stagnation, the kind that I wish for no one. As such I allow for each of my paintings to dictate their own terms for coming alive as best they can.

 In the here and now, I find myself drawn to portrait painting. Something about the clash of lines, the emerging expression, the planes, the movement of mass and color, makes the process extremely satisfying. The gratification that I derive from each completed project makes the struggle worthwhile and addictive.

The most challenging component of my work is finding the subject that can hold my interest and warrant the use of my time.

I’ve been given many suggestions. ‘Why not close friends?’ Perhaps when I find the bond strong enough to handle disappointment and rejection. ‘Why not famous people?’ They pose and have legacies at stake that make them unwilling to let their guard down. ‘Why not beautiful people?’ They are too perfect and I find perfection alienating.

The option then was regular everyday people, often those that I can relate to because of their station, their unhidden vulnerability and their imperfect existence. Among them, I generally find young children and the elderly interesting to paint.  Unconcerned about judgment, either because they are too young to understand or too wise to pay heed, they make ideal subjects who are relaxed and present in the moment.

Very often people pose and not pause for portraiture, be it painting or photography.

In my mind, there is a huge difference in the outcome of the picture as a result of such portrayal.  Posing distinguishes the subject and the viewer as separate entities that simply connect on the periphery of life, whereas pausing provokes reflection, inviting the viewer into the life and mind of the subject, where the commonality of the human condition binds them to each other.

Nature, is supremely beautiful and infinitely healing simply because it is unconscious of itself. To me, beauty in portraiture is simply a moment when the subject is not self-conscious and yet willing and confident enough to be seen. I often look for such frozen bits of information in my subjects that can be highlighted and exposed to the viewer.

I was once told that all reasons for existence is simply made up and as such that which cannot be attributed to personal choice is best left in the decisive hands of the divine universe.  I was also told that since everything is transitory the only thing an artist will ever own is the process of creation.

So I figured, what better way to spend my available moments, than creation?

Vandana Nittoor

Can an orchard be turned into jam?

There’s a Chinese proverb that claims that with patience an orchard can be turned into jam!

 I wonder if the idea of making men peaceful, one at a time and then adding it all together to create a race opposed to self-destruction is even possible?

Whether its possible or not, in truth there is no available alternative other than individual inner transformation.

Years back, tormented by severe anxiety and a racing mind that just would not shut up, I was suffering deeply. I decided to take up meditation to help calm myself and slow down. Unfamiliar and alien to the concept of a quiet mind, I sat pretending upon my cushion day in and day out, simply following the guidance I had received in my classes. I really wasn’t sure of what I was doing.

Overtime I learnt to quiet my racing mind and control my anxiety in most circumstances. I still suffer, sometimes deeply, from time to time but I recognize what is happening and I’m able to change my course.

 I have to admit that the work that I have put in is far from over and it will probably take a few lifetimes before I’m enlightened :-)

However, as a result of meditation, the most surprising revelation to me has been, that with concentrated effort the hardest to shake off beliefs and counter productive conceptions that I had about my self and my life can be changed forever.

 To those who are skeptical I would ask that you simply observe your mind for a few moments without judgment or interference. You are likely to find a stream of thoughts and emotions that flow through. You will notice that though internally things are constantly changing you might be holding onto the belief in the existence of a self that is definitive and stable.

This clinging is what causes us to often react in short sighted and selfish ways that can also be very harmful.

Cultivation of contemplative sciences enables one to let go of the most stubbornly held destructive ideas and notions. A sieve like mind that simply allows concepts to flow through improves the quality of life and our interactions with others.

 As a result, the angry aunt, the cynical cousin, the critical elder, the racist bus driver will continue to bother you but compassion can be extended quiet easily as you recognize their clogged and clustered mind states that blocks the renewing experiences of peace and love.

Unfortunately contemplative practices cannot be externally enforced. Internal transformation is slow, hard and challenging work that takes decades to bear fruit. 

Science while improving life has proved insufficient in enlarging our sense of wellbeing. Force and violence can keep the dark and unexamined aspects of our lives contained only for a while. Detailed recording of history, its instruction, religions, advancement in technology have not been successful in establishing structural changes in our psyche.

Be it the heartless extermination of the Jewish people during the World War, the senseless slaughter that plagued the varied communities in Bosnia, the still hard to comprehend extermination forces that acted out in Rwanda or the atrocities in modern day Syria, what we encounter time and again is everyday humans who have simply lost all points of references.

It is perhaps time to give the softer arts of contemplation and inner transformation   a place and a fair chance in civilized worlds before we run amok destroying each other.  

In my mind, of all the fears both real and imagined to which we have gotten habitually reactional, the only one that threatens life itself is the complete erosion of love and compassion.  Power hungry regimes, rulers and leaders cannot enable us. Change, can be brought about only by ordinary, everyday people.

The Haunting Human - A series of portraitures

Mid last year I decided to take my art a bit more seriously and was curious to see what art dealers and gallery owners had to say about my work.

I got all kinds of input but the most valuable one suggested that my work had to be more consistent and representative of myself as a person.  My work, I was told must be identifiable even without the presence of my signature.

The advice made perfect sense to me....but how does one find oneself in their art?

I came back home skeptical that I would be able to discover my unique style, my unwavering interest and my true passion.

Painting and writing are necessary for my well being, they are the two activities that I need to indulge in almost everyday to keep myself going. So the necessity of art in my life is unquestionable!

I simply had to find what I enjoyed painting most of all.

I had read a while back, that for any habit to form one must repeat the given activity for 21 days straight, before the struggle to enforce it as a habit is over. So I decided to paint whatever it is that I wished to paint for 21 days straight and then based upon the production see if there was a particular style that I preferred.

I put myself to work, diligently!

After about day eleven, I noticed that I almost always leaned towards figurative work, be it a portrait or the whole figure. By day seventeen I noticed that I was leaning even more towards portraits and that there was a definitive approach to my work. I continued to see if this would engage my interest over time and it did.

Now months later, I’m happy to say that human portraiture is yet to disappoint me and my interest seems only to deepen with time.

So here is my gallery you can find my series of ‘Haunting humans’.

Esref Armagan

Close your eyes. Imagine that you have been blind since birth. Now try and visualize the images that I describe. 

“We are standing on the banks of a small stream. There is a bridge that takes you across. There are three houses on the other side of the stream.  Two of the houses are stacked right next to each other on the right side of the bridge. The other house is on the left.

Reflection is the image of an object that we see in mirrors and other shiny surfaces. The reflections of the houses are cast upon the waters of the stream. In the reflections the houses appear upside down. The color of water is deeper right below the bridge where its reflection is cast. In other places the color of water is lighter. 

There are trees at the back of the houses. The color on the treetops appears light. Color is dense in the middle and lower half of the trees. 

Let me also tell you that in the natural world objects that are closer to us appear larger than objects that are far away, this is one of the elements of perspective that is used in drawings and paintings

Now feel free to draw and paint the image that you have visualized. Please do so with your eyes still closed. “

Few of our brains are worthy of an elaborate study. Esref Armagan the blind Turkish painter is amongst the few whose extraordinary capacity has caused Harvard researchers to study his brain. 

Born blind in the year 1953, he taught himself to draw using cardboard and nails. Using a braille stylus that etches the lines of his drawings, he feels the objects first and then he draws them. With a pencil in one hand and with the fingers of the other hand closely feeling the etched drawings, he guides himself as he captures the image that is stored within his brain. 

He uses just five colors along with black and white and paints his drawings with his fingers. 

Researchers found that the visual cortex, which is usually dark in blind people, lights up when Esref starts drawing – a finding that surprised many of them. His ability to bring in the elements of perspective into his drawings is so extraordinary that it caused more studies to be conducted by the University of Toronto.

Personally I find his work fascinating. To me it goes to prove that at a very intrinsic level, the perceiver and what he perceives influence each other in a highly interconnected way. This makes me wonder how much of our life experiences are true and how much is fabricated by our mind. 

Vulnerability of Artists

Artists have very little choice but to express themselves. A hardwired compulsion within us forces us to bridge our own inner truths with that of the world outside. It is hardly a profession with assured retirement benefits or even recognition within one’s own lifetime.

Vulnerability is a given! In honoring the impulse to create, artists are also conceding to the likelihood of misinterpretation and cruel judgments.

Personally I have endured much criticism; sometimes the harshest are my very own.

Once during a class critic a painting that I had painstakingly worked on for 14 hours was simply picked off the easel and dropped on the ground, very much like an apple picker would throw away a fruit because his basket was full. Needless to say the experience was painful. I endured it by first pretending to be braver than I was and then by simply continuing to paint.

Through all of this I have learnt that I cannot stop or refrain from the act of creating itself – once having taken root creativity seems to grow unhindered and carefree.

Usually, when I’m heavily criticized I’m hopeless with a quick comeback.  I belong to that vast majority of people who know what they should have said exactly five minutes after the moment has expired and then beat themselves up for the next several days for not having spoken their mind.

However, recently, I had the cruel satisfaction of knowing the exact thing to say in a highly charged situation.  Upon being criticized for my writing style, which is pretty much like the way I look or how tall I am – things that I have little control over, I indulged in a very sarcastic retort.  It was a classic and something that will be spoken over several Thanksgiving dinner’s, a statement that will be time-honored and go down generations.

In case you are wondering, I’m not very proud of my sudden prowess with incisive words and phrases. Self-righteous anger is like being high on alcohol – it leaves you flat when the high is gone! Especially if like me, you too are born with both a heart and a soul.

Another instance of unnecessary criticism is classically portrayed in the movie ‘Five Flights Up’, starring Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman. The movie circles around a hectic weekend when the pair are trying to sell the apartment in which they have formulated a life for about 40 years.

One of the bedrooms in the apartment is used as a studio by Morgan Freeman and is stacked with paintings painted by him.

During an open house when they courageously open their home to potential buyers, the callousness of those visiting is both humorous and reflective of the shallow and dismissive urban culture that we have all adopted.  With the couple still present in their home that they have cherished for years, potential buyers talk carelessly about gutting down walls, clearing up the ‘clutter’ of his artistic pieces, changing the bath tub and on and on. Some even comment on his artistic capability forgetting that they are there to buy his apartment and not his art- work.

Morgan Freeman chuckles as he says, ‘everyone’s a critic these days’ and his comment came very close to home for me.

Truthfully, I understand completely that not everyone will fall in love with my work. My raw writing style and my niche novels are not for all. My love for the human form and my deep joy in painting the human figure is definitely not for those who prefer other forms or techniques.  

I myself have been appalled in finding a urinal as an art piece, though I have to admit it made me curious about the thought process of the audacious artist who chose to do that.

Artists are definitely more susceptible to criticism but like most humans we understand that our life’s work may not be appreciated easily.  My child’s kindergarten teacher used to say, “if you don’t have anything nice to say then don’t say anything at all” and while that attitude is much appreciated, if you have to say something then try to say it with kindness.

Personally I have to admit that not even my sulking ego has the capability of keeping me from my work for long. So since I might just survive – please beware!

Why Picasso is a great artist?

I’m not particularly fascinated by cubism. But I love the audacious spirit in its invention.  To me Picasso is not necessarily a great painter, perhaps even an average one but he is a truly great ‘artist’.

Recently I visited a special exhibit, show casing Picasso’s work at the Barnes in Philadelphia. Most often when I visit museums I just enjoy the paintings as a whole. This time I felt as If I was transported into his studio.

I watched as he broke off a piece of charcoal, heard him blow the charcoal dust away from the image he had produced, tweak it a bit with his pinky finger and so on.  It might have just been my hyper active imagination but if it made the experience richer then so be it!

When I was first introduced to art history, I was surprised as how dismissive the western art historians have typically been about stylized, two dimensional and decorative arts of other cultures. It seemed to me that art from cultures that ignored accurate replication of nature or did not keep perspective in mind, like in the western art culture, were quiet often classified as something that was inferior in technique and skill.

Therefore the emotive expression of a Neanderthal upon his cave walls, the highly decorative Persian and oriental works, the stylized human figures of the Africans, the two dimensional miniature pieces of my own Indian heritage are amongst the examples of work that had been classified as unrefined and entry level.

This was the predominant notion that prevailed in the western art world at the time of Pablo Picasso. However, like many open-minded artists he too was influenced by the forms and norms of other cultures particularly the simplicity of the stylized stick figures produced by the Africans.

At the time Picasso’s geometric and two-dimensional cubist ideas, was not tested nor was he famous enough to proclaim it as a new trend in the art world.

To deviate from the norm, to have a thought process that is unconventional and to be fearless of ridicule is in my mind an act of courageous innovation.

Even when I’m not a great fan of his work, by destabilizing the set mental concept of ‘right’ way to produce art, I think, he paved the way for many artists to make their own mark upon the world.

 Perhaps this is why he deserves to be called a great ‘artist’.


The Vinegar Tasters

The battle for ideological supremacy is perhaps as old as mankind itself.

In this ancient Taoist painting, Confucius, Buddha and Loa Tzu (founder of Taoism) are seen tasting vinegar from the barrel.

As the story goes, Confucius balks at the sour taste as in his mind human life was constantly out of step with the heavens and strict enforcement of laws and regulations were essential to bring earthly life in conjunction to its counterpart – the heavens.

For Buddha, life was essentially filled with suffering and therefore his expression is one of stoicism. The bitterness of the vinegar is just another instance of the suffering that humans need to transcend through wisdom and compassion.

Loa Tzu is the only one seen rejoicing despite the bitter sour taste of the vinegar. To him all of life’s difficulties and challenges had to be embraced with joy and a sense of humor. In his mind there was no imbalance in the universe and everything that occurred was harmonious and natural.

Of course it’s a Taoist painting and therefore it upholds his truth as the one that brings ultimate happiness. For in essence as humans we all crave wellbeing and wish to avoid suffering.

Its funny however that in the Chinese culture where these three ideologies reside side by side, most often blended and undifferentiated, they should still compete with each other for the slightest bit of supremacy if possible.

In my own mind they are all right and they are all necessary for harmony and balance. After all Confucius’s regulations are necessary for a society to operate successfully, Loa’s Taoist sense of good humor and acceptance is necessary for myriad personalities within a family to thrive and get along and Buddha’s sense of training the mind in order that it may avert itself from excessive attachment is the ultimate self-help guidance available to humans. 

Art of Engagement


The cicada bug has arrived and unpacked its bags for a long and disconcerting visit.  Oh! There will be unrest for the next thirteen to seventeen years! This time it hums the question that I’ve evaded for a while. It bids me to seek answers and steady myself.

“Why art?” it asks.

‘Is that even a valid question?’ I ask myself. Can there be a ‘why’ for human need for expression, hardwired as we are to communicate?  Should art have a purpose beyond the healthiness of a satisfying process?

Before I proceed to find my answers, I think, I need to ask myself the most important question – why am I drawn to art?

They beckon me; the stray sculptures in manicured parks, the murals on abandoned walls, carved wooden doors sealing entrances to discarded homes, cave paintings by Neanderthals, the bronze cast ‘Dancing girl’ of the Indus, the great Sphinx, the architecture of Gaudi, the intricacy of the Faberge eggs, the visual trance of Van Gogh and on and on.

Why am I drawn? Why do they entice my attention?

The answers are no more than questions themselves.

Is art merely a reflection, maybe just a human aspiration to be surrounded by all things beautiful? Is it simply punctuation, from the unenviable and grosser aspects of human life?  Or is creativity simply an evolutionary proposal aimed at polishing the skill-set that ensures our smoother existence?

 All answers are true and they are all relevant, like light dispersed through a prism. After all most of us decorate our spaces, even our work desks with a picture, a planted pot, a candle or a lamp. A good majority of us would enjoy sitting around decorative fountains and breathing crisp air after long and exhausting days. Even more so it is with great creativity that we are capable of negotiating peace, harmonizing the unharmonious, shedding light on that which is relevant and encouraging the pursuit of personal liberties as best we can.

I wonder then if it’s even possible to further integrate that which hangs on our walls to that which we experience as life?

How do you explain; the character of a home filled with paintings, the restiveness of sculpture small and large, the assured company of a familiar author, timeless music and enthralling dance performances?

These human creations are as integrated as a peaceful sunset, the beauty of a lane filled with cherry blossoms, the laughter of streams, the sturdiness of snow-capped mountain ranges and the simplicity of a mushroom in the far corner of a forgotten garden.

In my mind art is already integrated, only attention needs to be engaged.

The cicada is only asking me to boldly live within my questions themselves before I find my answers.