Many of us raised into conventional middle-class Indian homes couldn’t refuse the hand-me-down belief systems that came with them. One of the more resolute (and often implied) lessons that rang through our childhoods was that most things that felt good were probably bad for us.
To turn this inherently guilt-inducing notion of pleasure on its head, we called on filmmaker, writer and antakshari champion Paromita Vohra to talk of the ‘cultural aphrodisiacs’ that stimulate her five senses. Delving into the notion that pleasuring has as much to do with personal discoveries as with the discoveries of the limbs and laments of significant others, we find that there is nothing trivial about the merry pursuit of indulgence!
“The wise in love. Ah, human creatures!
Even your fantasies are teachers.”
– Gita Govinda
“Who taught us to fear pleasure so much?
Too many people to count and name
Who were taught the same
So no one to blame.
Why do we fear pleasure so much?
Perhaps because we owe it such a debt.
The senses are all that we are
The senses are all that helps us connect
Collecting data from the world, forming and re-forming it into patterns that dissolve
Then take new shapes to show us new meanings
The senses are the first and maybe the only way we have
Of apprehending the world, of rendering it into data, of understanding it
To make sense of things
We need the senses
If our senses are all we are, can we really afford to doubt them?
Should we not instead hone them, if we are little without them?
Trust them? Refine them, let them be our guide
To a journey of connections in the world
Between spoken and unspoken, the visible and invisible, the explicit and implicit
Not forcing these two faces of the same thing apart, but letting them co-exist, take turns at playing with meanings?
I often wonder if those who tell us to “have control over our senses” wouldn’t just like to have control over us. Because playing with our senses is the way we learn to control them, become confident of them, become confident of our own understandings.
Anyway. Because the heart and mind and body want what they want, the world – which is a place and also an aphrodisiac to tease our senses awake – sometimes disguises itself as art to carry out the necessary business that must be done to survive.
Here’s a small offering then, a prayer thali of cultural aphrodisiacs, meant to propitiate each one of our senses.”
– Paromita Vohra
‘Mera dil jo mera hota’ – Film – Anubhav/Sense Experience Year 1972
Music: Kanu Roy | Lyrics: Gulzar | Playback singer: Geeta Dutt | Actor: Tanuja | Director: Basu Bhattacharya
“This song is all about the memory of touch and what touch means, and how it amplifies itself by making us more sensitive. The song pays homage to touch.
Light touches water, the water touches the woman’s body, her memory touches the past, she touches her own skin, one shot touches another in sensual superimpositions.
The woman sings, she would take the sun and rub it over her like sandalwood, then, turned gold by this sun-sandalwood, she would burn like kundan. One thing turns into another, passing its qualities through touch, its qualities transforming through touch.”
“Figs and chillies, cream and strawberries, sushi and cherries, avocados and pomegranates, asparagus and peaches. In the middle of it all, a human brain, its pathways of pleasure at home with the abundance of taste, the banquet of texture, growing and developing into a self as the senses are fed.
So taste is also sight, colours that invite us and offer themselves. So taste is also touch, as each texture yields a different flavour – the ridges of figs, the springiness of anar, the mischief of fish roe, the squishy swish of avocado – and each taste has a shape – the airy thin length of asparagus, the round friendliness of cherries. Contrasting flavours somehow belong together, joining what seems to be separate – sharp chillies with sweet figs, plain rice with edgy ginger.
As children we put things into our mouths by way of introduction; as our acquaintance grows into a nuanced, complex, confident one, we become adults.”
“If Bombay were to have an official flower of love, then it would have to be the mogra.
Wearing a gajra is part of the Indian tradition of shringhar, the way women adorn themselves to be not, more beautiful, but more alluring. The smell of the mogra, sweet, drenched, heady, mimics the feeling of desire. It is a slowly unfolding smell, teasing your senses from a distance or, as Jaidev says in the Gita Govinda “flowers, that open at a lover’s lightest tread.” Except we are the flowers, opening up to the tantalizing perfume of desire approaching,
It’s an undulating smell, that winds itself around you softly. Wear a mogra gajra and the fragrance stays on your body, like a secret mark of love, a private reminder of desire, many hours after the flowers fade.
As a young woman, just about beginning adult life in the city, I was half-asleep on a slow local in the torpid Bombay heat, when the cool smell of mogras wafted over and woke me up ever so gently. I opened my eyes to see two classic commuter ladies – starched saris with sharp pleats, modern mangalsutras, rexine purses tucked underarm – buying gajras from the little kids who sell them on trains. Pinning one on to her hair one woman said to the other: baap re, when I wear this mogra in the evening no, my mister just can’t control himself!
They laughed wryly and I felt agog, like some grown up secret had been passed on to me!”
– Excerpt from Tera Gajra Re, Paromita’s column How To Find Indian Love in Mumbai Mirror.
“In poetry, I hear sound, rhythm, shape, feeling.
Urdu is a language I know only through hearing it, not through reading or learning. It is familiarity and foreignness in one. In its poetry is the playfulness of Hindi film lyrics and gravity of ideas.
Sometimes in Urdu I hear English, sometimes someone else’s English, sometime English the way I would like to speak it. I wish that I could speak English in Urdu because that’s the rhythm I like to hear, which seems to evoke the rhythm of my experiences, my anubhav.”
“She flows down my timeline tweet by tweet day by day
I scroll past like I never saw them, not an RT, not even a fav
“Light is sight. Light is colour, translucence, magic, illusion, trance, beauty, intensity, joy, dream and reality and city.”
Conceptualised and compiled by Tanvi Shah.
Photos courtesy Paromita Vohra.
Paromita believes that “the process of making art is in some senses always digital”, and that all art follows a process of mixing and remixing data which is sensory, emotional and material to create new narratives, forms and aesthetic experiences.
Paromita’s Mumbai Local session titled ‘Art as Ishq, Internet as Art’ will be held at MCubed Library on May 7 (Sat) at 5 pm. She will talk about her engagement with the idea of the digital in her films, mixing and remixing fiction and non-fiction, political and popular. This practice has led to her setting up the heartwarming website Agents of Ishq that candidly addresses matters of love, sex and desire for Indian audiences.
This session is part of Junoon‘s Mumbai Local series, and is free and open for all.