In Mamallapuram, I was put under the stewardship of a man named Raj— a talented stone sculptor retained by the owner of the sculpting studio to assist me in my daily effort to learn the difficult craft of carving stone.
I came with big ideas and wobbly, frantic sketches in ballpoint. I couldn’t keep up with the amount of ideas I had. I was, in short, a bumbling, creative mass of unfocused energy. Very well, said Raj, in his easy zen-like demeanor. He liked my sketches. A good start.
We went into the stone yard to find a piece of rock to practice on. Raj kicked at a funny cheese-wedged mass of granite with his foot—as good as any. The shape was peculiar; I liked it. I wanted to fit a person in that shape, bracing against its confines. The mass felt sexy. I drew the figure on each side in bold strokes- first in charcoal, then with a twig from the ground dipped in wet red pigment. I was very particular about the curvature of the spine and the negative space between the neck and the tightly drawn-in shoulder. Its funny the strength that a gesture can hold over you.
This warm-up piece quickly became the work. I became attached to it like a friend, beyond sentiments toward any photo or drawing I’ve created. Our relationship was often tumultuous: vacillations between soaring moments of elation when chunks of stone fell away to reveal something closer to the truth of the piece, and that aching pit of a stomach each time I was convinced I had ruined it. I confirmed for myself the oft-heard cliché about stone sculpting: that it is an act of liberating the sculpture that is already there in the stone. At several points I had to alter my original composition because it was not, in fact, true to the reality of the stone, and what was asking to come forth. Knees jostled, imaginary elbows shifted to align with imaginary shoulders. Invisible planes bisected the body at incongruent angles, causing my heart to beat a bit faster.
The most immediate challenge was the act of thinking three-dimensionally while envisioning each side as its own two dimensional form. The vertices all needed to line up. Any last-minute revision necessarily affected all the other sides as well.
I originally had a few reference images on my dust-covered phone, but they weren’t much help. Instead, Raj and I carried on sometimes befuddling conversations on anatomy and form. See, the clavicle does “ this" when the arm swing out like… this.. We often ended such conversations with blank stares at each other, or furrowed brows, or guffaws when we realized we were arguing the same thing.
I took to using my own body and face for measurements, mashing my fingers agains my skin. The eye socket should be the width of this knuckle, and the divot above the lip should be wide enough to fit the tip of the index finger, but no more. I often walked home among the sand dunes with charcoal and rock dust smeared across my face, oblivious until I saw my silted self in a reflection.
Slowly, strangely, the stone fell away to reveal something less heroic and more intimate: a version of myself....not exactly, mind you, but I sensed that our soul was the same. It is an awkward and humbling experience to carve yourself based upon a lifetime of thoughts and self-perceptions. Indeed, the process unfolded in front of a troupe of master stone carvers from all over South India and I had to let go of my tightly-wound perfectionism and concern of what may from the exterior seem a narcissistic endeavor. On the contrary, I felt vulnerable and had to untangle feelings of who I thought I was, who I thought others saw me to be, and who I wished myself to be.
What arose in my stone self was a tender melancholy—a feeling encased in the constraints of my skin for as long as I can remember. Often labeled a “sensitive child," “sissy," sometimes “fag,” “over thinker” or even by a former lover as a “delicate flower” (the horror!), it was a perilous endeavor to memorialize this part of me in stone, eschewing my desires to make my alter-self more masculine, heroic, artificial.
At some point I devised a working title: Delicate. These months of prolonged introversion have allowed me to see myself differently. Not necessarily more objectively, as that is near impossible when the thinker is evaluating from the inside, but as the shifting facet of a prismatic gem, throwing light differently, emanating a new quality.
From this altered angle, I see that my greatest strengths and weaknesses both emanate from the same fissures. What has made me a creative, empathic thinker and doer (if I can rightly claim those titles) also makes me sensitive to the world in a way that sometimes leads to heightened sensitivity or otherness, often a difficult place to reside.
He's not yet finished. At some point I had to leave my other in Tamil Nadu, promising to see him on the other side of a not-inexpensive boat ride across the world. I'm hoping we reunite sooner rather than later.