Digging deeper into my selves

By Rosalyn D Mello | Mumbai

Updated: Jan 18, 2019, 05:45 IST

How the Ajanta and Ellora caves inspired me to do some excavating of my own, to hew and carve my self-identity into something exquisite

When we arrived at Ellora, we found ourselves completely baffled by the 8th-century Kailasa Temple, a megalith carved out of a single rock. Pic/Getty Images

In a hotel room in the midst of the land of medieval erotic Indian temples, I managed to write, re-write, and submit my PhD research proposal. My fate is in the hands of people I may never meet. It doesn't matter anymore. What mattered was that I found in me the grace and courage to perform intellectual tasks and to find within what had otherwise seemed like abstract thought, a methodological rigour.

There is something undeniably marvelous about that process of scholarship. Knowing that I already authored and published a book, even as I'm in the process of negotiating with a publisher for the next one, boosted my ego and self-esteem. A few days ago, I also received a Facebook notification reminding me it has been three years since I began writing this column. I've lost track of how many of these I've written.

What has changed most significantly since I wrote my first column is my status. Given that I began 'seeing' someone who lives in another continent, can I still legitimately identify as a single woman? I do not mourn the loss of that self, only because it is the first time in my life I find I am able to wholly depend on another person. Sometimes it scares and baffles me, because I never imagined I'd meet anyone who felt right, who 'got' me, who found me adorable, who delighted in my kinks and eccentricities, who finds the sound of my voice soothing, who celebrates both my strengths and my weaknesses. I hadn't anticipated discovering in another the joy of being coupled.

We spent the last week travelling. After Khajuraho, we boarded a train to Bhopal, then another from Bhopal to Aurangabad. Finally, from Aurangabad, we organised a cab to Ajanta and spent the night at the state government-managed hotel. The next morning we took the bus to the heritage site and set out to explore the 30 caves lined up in the horseshoe-shaped ghat that date from between 2nd century BCE to about 480 CE. You must understand that I'd been wanting to visit Ajanta for years. But, like with certain books or works of art, the timing was never quite right until now. Knowing that my travel companion also enjoyed art and architecture made this trip seem fortuitous.

To enter caves one and two in Ajanta is to experience unprecedented awe. I found myself revisiting the roots of the word 'excavation', because it acquires a different resonance as you wander around — 'To hollow out, make hollow by digging or scooping, or by removing extraneous matter,' 1590s, from Latin excavatus, past principle of excavare 'to hollow out', from ex 'out'. It is overwhelming to think of the scale, scope, and extent of human labour that went into hollowing out mountainous rock to create monastic sites for meditation and scholarship.

On Wednesday, when we arrived at Ellora, we found ourselves completely baffled by the 8th-century Kailasa Temple, a megalith carved out of a single rock. I imagine that even the act of carving or painting must have been a meditative one, given the on-site challenges, the lack of light, the limitations of the tools available then for hewing and sculpting, or materials for making the fresco-like paintings. Visiting both Ajanta and Ellora is an exercise in experiencing the vast spectrum of what has survived of some of the earliest traces of an artistic vocabulary and aesthetic, as well as in confronting all that has been lost or erased by time.

At my last therapy session, I inadvertently spoke about how my self was a composite of many different selves that manifest in response to different stimuli. I told my therapist, for instance, about the self that is articulated in a kitchen; one that is more commanding, more authorial and authoritative, yet creative and loving; this against the self that is more vulnerable during travel, or that emerges in response to a lover or my best friend. "But are all these selves talking to each other?" she asked me. I told her it seemed that it was through the mediation of the writing self that the multiple selves find themselves in dialogue.

It occurred to me today, that if I could do even half the labour performed by the unknown craftspeople of Ajanta and Ellora in excavating my selves in order to transform their intangible materiality into something solidly astounding, I would be left with something possibly exquisite. I am still looking for a way of rehabilitating all that I'd chalked out in my life as losses and rejections; all the regrets I've been shouldering, the vulnerabilities and self-doubts and disillusionments. I want to restructure them within the selves that are emerging and that are yet to surface. I want to embody within me the megalith of time past, present, and future. Only then can I truly begin to think about my authorial legacy.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx Send your feedback to
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