Five minutes. That’s all the time I’d get with Yoko Ono. The legendary singer, song-writer, performance artist, peace activist and widow of John Lennon was going to be in New Delhi in early 2012, for four days, inaugurating two shows in India.
Five minutes. The last time she visited India was along with Lennon in the 70s. One of the shows, ‘Our Beautiful Daughters,’ was conceived exclusively for India while the other, ‘The Seed,’ is a retrospective. Both were to open simultaneously at two Vadehra galleries.
I had asked for about an hour. That was cut by half. Then a further fifteen minutes were whittled away. What kind of interview was possible in fifteen minutes?
Roshini Vadehra, daughter of founder Arun Vadehra and director of the institution, met me the weekend before the invitations-only press conference. From the very start, she said, the plan made between herself and Parul Vadehra, sister-in-law and co-director, “was to limit access, to keep it dignified.” So there was no question of getting to spend an extended time with Ono. Her team of five handlers would act as buffers throughout and even for micro-brief individual interviews, the only opportunities would come immediately after the press-meet.
I’d have to try something unique, I thought. Something that would reflect the singularity of this diminutive Japanese woman, this maverick bohemienne with the chequered past who captured the heart of rock ’n’ roll’s god-king only to lose him to the toxicity of fame. This target of Beatle-fan hatred as the group unravelled, supposedly on account of her. This gentle-faced, pyjama-clad peace-activist with the unnerving penchant for peeling off her inhibitions in public. This lightning rod for grief at the time of Lennon’s appointment with the bullet of a demented fan.
E-mail was possible, said Roshini. I set about composing questions. But there was no chance that I’d be in direct, personal contact with Ono. Plus, she may not have time to answer: this was Saturday; she was embarking for India on Sunday. Even if she did, Roshini warned me, the answers were likely to be poetic and brief.
From the time I was sixteen, the image of Yoko Ono’s pale face framed by a rippling tide of black hair had been stitched into my consciousness. The tilted almond eyes, the Buddha-smile, the minimal make-up and the stillness: from the very outset, she had a solemnity that distinguished her from all the adoring wives, groupies and assorted sycophants that surrounded other rock stars. While the four famously clownish, long-haired and pink-faced young men cavorted for the camera, she was the alien in their midst, even as she became an inseparable part of their public image. In her beguiling otherness, her oriental poise and her remote, mature-woman’s angularity, she loomed over the four musicians. A shadow, an omen, a warning.
I sent three questions by e-mail: about an exhibition of photographs in London; about her peace activities (I wanted to know which one had been the most successful); about the sensory associations she had, if any for India; for Japan and for the USA.
I got three answers:
I’d had an idea. It’s going to sound very corny but here’s what I asked Roshini for: 10 minutes of silence and the chance to give the artist a tiny object that I believed was emblematic of India. Roshini wrote back “No-one is actually getting more than three to five minutes on a one-on-one. Also, I don’t think they will permit a gift!”
- The title of the photo collection was MUSEUM OF MODERN FART. You should find it and have fun with it.
- Iridescent voices. Sweet smell of the air which slips in ones dream. Reflective water tapping forever in our minds.
At the press-meet, two rooms had been set aside, one with chairs facing a stage and another in which beverages and snacks had been laid out. I had come with no expectations. As the amount of time to speak to the artist waned, I had decided to re-interpret this handicap as an opportunity. Instead of treating my celebrity subject as an orange to be squeezed for flavours and stories, I would use her visit like a citrus-mill, to squeeze myself for understandings and insights. Perhaps that is Ono’s offering to the world: She trains her audiences to discover the art coiled within every breathing moment.I adopted two counter-intuitive strategies. In the first place, I planned not to make a physical record of the experience: No notes, no audio tapes, no photographs. In the second place, aside from the tiny gift that I was carrying with me in my jacket pocket, I had not prepared any questions. The reality of interviewing a blue-ribbon celebrity is that there’s no chance whatsoever of gaining fresh or original titbits from them except by hiding in their latte machines, haunting their shower stalls, staking out their yoga mats. Since I had no desire to follow that path, I chose instead to become a dandelion seed and to allow the cosmic wind to guide me.
After a half-hour delay, there she was, Yoko Ono. A petite figure dressed in black and grey, she strode in with the jerky energy of someone for whom there’s never enough time. Up onto the stage she went, flanked by the Vadehras, settling quickly into place, all her movements bird-like and economical. She wore her straw hat at a jaunty angle, with the hallmark black shades riding low on her nose. She greeted the assembly and gazed around the room, examining us as if we were the focus of the event rather than herself.
She talked about being glad to bring her work to India, delighted to return after so many years. Her accent suggested someone for whom, even after living in the West since her childhood, English remained inexplicably foreign, despite her fluent use of it. For all her wealth and sophistication, she radiated a child-like vulnerability. She told us that it gave her great pleasure to notice that in India, unlike so many other countries, a majority of journalists in the room were women. She knew of the gender inequalities that riddled Indian society—the “lost” girl children, the murdered brides—and the work that she had prepared for India was directed towards those realities. But in the course of her brief statement, delivered extempore in that girlish, breathy voice, she iterated her sense of a shared destiny as an Asian woman amongst other Asian women. When I met Roshini in the corridor outside Hodge Suite that morning, she confirmed with a genuinely contrite expression that each journalist was only being permitted five minutes. I said that was fine. Dandelion-seeds do not fret about time constraints. I asked about the tiny gift in my pocket, saying that I’d still like to give that to Ono and I told Roshini what it was. She looked apprehensive but promised to find out. Briana Blasco, Yoko Ono
Of the two shows, the one at the Defence Colony Gallery has the greater resonance for Beatles fans. Video film loops not only show some of Ono’s best known video pieces, including the 80-minute-long Film No. 4 (Bottoms) but tantalising snatches of Ono’s life with John Lennon as well.
In order to test my endurance, I watched 40 minutes of Bottoms, and came away feeling amused and altered. The naked derrières of an unspecified number of adult walkers, male and female, are filmed in tight close-up, without drama and in unsparing black and white. The owners of the bottoms are walking on a tread-mill, facing away from a fixed camera. So they’re perfectly static while in continuous motion.
Seamless transitions from one individual to the next ensure that there are no breaks, no relief from the continuous visual of two smooth mounds of warm flesh. They become abstractions very quickly, as the dark vertical joint between the buttocks meets the horizontal fold beneath them, churning with a slow, chewing motion. There’s nothing even remotely erotic about the sight. The bums are variously hairy, freckled, textured with the impressions left by tight clothing, some firm, some loose, all fairly well-toned and one had a tiny white growth, pointed as a witch’s hat, on its lower left lobe. Cut-Piece I and Cut-Piece (2003)
were filmed documentations of Ono’s performance art, where she allowed members of an audience to cut away her clothing. They are mesmerising. In the first one, taken in 1964, her face is rounded, plump and resolutely impassive as one by one, members of the audience pick up the gleaming shears left in front of the kneeling artist and snip away at the flimsy fabric defences. She doesn’t cry or protest, but her expression shifts in subtle ways and we can feel her anxiety even as we wonder at the determination that keeps her sitting still, submitting to this highly structured abuse.
After the Q&A, Ono left the room and the time for individual interviews began. My request to make a tiny offering was accepted. The interviews were being conducted in the suite’s drawing room, behind double doors. Soon it would be my turn. Murray, Ono’s PR, a middle-aged man in a suit leaned out and said, looking at Roshini and then at me, “Who’s asked for the silence?” Roshini introduced me. “Well, you see,” said Murray, whispering conspiratorially, “there’s a lot of people wanting to interview her. Would it be all right if we don’t do it?” I nodded, “Sure.”
‘Remember Us’ consists of fifteen shallow troughs arranged in two rows in a dim-lit room. The troughs are filled with lumps of coal. Lying within the lumps are life-size replicas of women’s corpses, naked and headless, cast in pink silicone. The bodies represent women at various stages of bodyhood, from smooth girl-child to wrinkled crone, from concave bellies to swollen pregnant domes. On a nearby ledge, are three bowls filled with ash. Hanging up on the walls beside each trough are embroidered shrouds, bright and Rajasthani, made for the show by craftswomen from the Urmul campus, Bikaner. The audience is invited to interact with the bodies either by stroking them, or by strewing ash over them. At night, when the exhibition closes, they are covered with the cloths.
I entered the room. Murray and Roshini were present. Ono was on the right, on a low settee the colour of tutti-frutti ice-cream, looking up with that same expression of quickened attention as at the conference. We shook hands, I sat down on the arm-chair at right angles to her as I introduced myself. She smiled at my long surname; we agreed that the first name was enough.I had my minute gift in hand, in a scrap of wrapping paper tied with gilt-thread. “It’s a single clove,” I told her, “a spice.” She asked if such things were traditional gifts and I shook my head. I had wanted to say, though the words didn’t leave my mouth, that for me, the spice-trade was emblematic of India, triggering Europe’s ‘discovery’ of the Americas as they sought an alternative route to us. Instead, “I have only two questions,” I said. “The first is, what is the language of your thoughts?” She answered at once that every person has three languages: English, your national language and “a private language.” She tapped her chest, “the language of one’s own thoughts.”
My second question was about dreams: what dreams had she had, en route to India? Here she paused slightly, saying that she didn’t dream a whole lot, then tilted her head back, laughing as she added, “Of course I have a lot of waking dreams! I dream all the time!” I said that was all, then I thanked her, we shook hands again and I left the room.
Interactivity is crucial to Ono’s art. At the Okhla gallery the upper floors contains Mend Piece, in which visitors repair shards of broken Khurja pottery, India Smile, to which they add smiles by being filmed within an enclosed video booth, and My Mommy Is Beautiful, an art wall overflowing with remembrances to mothers and motherhood. At the Defence Colony Gallery, there are three of the 20 Wish Trees distributed around the city, covered with dangling white paper tags on which visitors have written down their wishes: “I wish I get to do the things I am born to do;” “PEACE;” “5cr;” “I wish that my husband gets what he wants.” About one hundred visitors come by on the average day, says Roshini.
GROWING THOUGHTS The Wish Tree in Hiroshima, JapanA moment later, Murray leaned out of the door, saying to me, “She wants to do the silence! She said she liked you. How long — five minutes?” I asked for two, feeling self-conscious about the queue of young journalists waiting in the corridor. Then I went back in, sitting down again, saying thank you as I sat. “Will you time it please?” I asked Murray. Everyone else had left the room by then, and he went out saying, “Yes. Time starts now.” He closed the door and I was alone in the room with Yoko Ono.
I remained exactly as before, eyes half-shut, looking down at a patch of carpet. I kept myself absolutely still, hands folded in my lap and I did not look at her at all. She remained perfectly still too, though I can only judge from the position of her feet on the floor. It was very important, I believed, to do nothing at all, not even think in her direction. There is surely something sacred about trust, especially sudden trust, sprouting unbidden in a hotel room somewhere in the Universe. I did not think of minutes, or about what I would write, or about dandelion seeds.
Then Murray came in. It was over.
Ono had been leaning back against the sofa, her hand lightly placed over her eyes but she moved at once, sitting up straight. She said, “I kept my mind blank and then all of a sudden the words appeared: I love you, I love you ...” I thanked her, we shook hands again and I left the room a second time.
On the top floor of the Defence Colony gallery, there are a number of framed maps of India, placed around the walls. The exhibit is called India Map Peace. Visitors are invited to use the rubber stamps lying on the desks in the room to stamp the words “Imagine Peace”—shanti ki kalpana karein in Hindi (and six other Indian languages)—onto the maps. Since the time I first looked in the room, two weeks ago, three of the maps were partially obscured and the remaining eleven were on their way. Our Beautiful Daughters - Vadehra Art Gallery, D-178 Okhla Phase-1, New Delhi
The Seeds- Vadehra Art Gallery, D-53 Defence Colony, New Delhi
The exhibitions opened on 12th January and will run up to 10th March, 2012.
Manjula Padmanabhan is a writer and artist who divides her time between New Delhi, the city formerly known as Madras, and Newport, Rhode Island. Her most recent novel is Escape, a dystopian adventure about the last little girl left in a country from which women have been eliminated. She welcomes conversation at marginalien.blogspot.com
(This story appears in the 02 March, 2012 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)