April 6, 2003
The New Indian Express on Sunday

Shreekumar Varma

Dr Suriya was one of the architects of a premier medical institution in the country. He was at the peak of his career, sought after by patients and colleagues alike, and generally considered an authority on his subject. It was an honour to get him to speak at seminars and conferences. His expertise was recognised all over the world. One fine day, at the peak of his career, he walked out on his job and the institution he helped build, and disappeared into relative anonymity in the Pondicherry ashram.

Why? It was a question on everyone’s lips. Had he been under too much pressure? Did he receive a call from above? How would he keep his family happy under such austere conditions? I heard from my uncle, who was his colleague, that he had grown disgusted with the medical system and its repressive atmosphere and had finally broken out of its shell. It takes a lot of courage, my uncle said. But Dr Suriya (name unchanged) had a lot of that. He had done what others could only fantasise about.

I visited Dr Suriya and his family at the ashram along with my uncle. We drove down to Pondicherry from Chennai on a day that was heavy with storm and thunder. It was dinner-time when we reached his house after a difficult drive. His wife, a kindly lady, served us food and then proceeded to bring us endless cups of tea as the good doctor kept the night alive with his tales. “I’ve never seen him so happy and alive,” my uncle told me later.

In the new environment, he had taken to painting, meditating and writing poetry in addition to seeing patients. He spent simple quality time with his family. He spoke that night with great enthusiasm, his eyes glowing like a little child on his first visit to the mighty ocean. When we finally went to bed it was only because we were so tired and sleepy that we would have collapsed in the living room if we hadn’t. We woke up next morning to a strange new sound. The ripple of water, a regular rhythm like that of someone paddling through a stream. The rain had stopped and the sun was out. What on earth was happening? We went out to investigate.

We came upon an unusual scene. The front room was a pool of rainwater that had lashed in the previous night. The doctor and his daughter, who was my friend, were seated in chairs, baling out the water using mugs and buckets. When they spotted my uncle and me standing in sleepy surprise, they waved cheerily and called out, “Come on, join us!”

I learnt a valuable lesson that day. From the ashes of luxury and high-profile living. From watching the joy of a down-to-earth life with its own hotline to creativity.

During the course of an interview last year I was asked two sets of questions: one, when does your muse strike, do you have to wait for it to strike; and two, how can you teach creative writing to your students, can such things really be taught?

My cousin, steeped in the routine of a factory, handling nuts, screws and bolts and then graduating to bigger things, found himself facing a sudden roadblock when global financial markets began to flounder. He was in the fag end of his forties. Having spare time on his hands, he started drawing. His charcoal and pencil portraits were so good that he was soon winning prizes on the Net in competition with thousands of artists all over the world. At around the same time, his father, who used to paint when he was younger, rediscovered art in his eighties. Now he is in full bloom, adding more and more colour to his life.

When and how does the muse strike? It is a million-rupee question that waits for no answer. Creativity is a coiled spring that has to be caught unleashed. Patience and determination can see you through. Like Dr Suriya, like my cousin and his father, people realise at a point in their lives that they’ve been living on someone else’s turf. Or they realise there are facets to their talent that have yet remained unexplored. The call of the muse isn’t always loud and clear. People often get confused and prefer to pretend that they haven’t heard it. It’s sometimes simpler that way.

Creativity is not confined to the arts. It is about how you do what you’re doing. You may be supervising in a factory, writing accounts in a government job, selling stuff on the pavement. Your muse will appear in many guises and it is up to you to receive it with open arms and not get confused by its call.

I myself languished in several miserable self-imposed business ventures until a series of lucky (though it didn’t seem so lucky at the time) circumstances made me wriggle out of them and devote myself full-time to writing. Like they say, water will find its own path.

Now for those questions. When does the muse strike, do you have to wait for it? I have a theory. Our creativity can be compared to the fine strings of a violin. It remains silent till the bow is drawn over them. And then it responds according to the places where the bow is touching it. Like varying notes, we deliver varying aspects of our creativity. Like art, literature, sports, music and craftsmanship. Everyone has at least a string that can be provoked by the muse to produce its music. Some people produce more notes than others. A few people are full of music! And I believe that this is not because some people are better than others, it’s because they recognise or are made to recognise their talent earlier and more than others.

The crux of this theory is that everyone — but everyone — has the potential to be creative. It depends on circumstance, history, encouragement and a host of other factors to display itself. Sometimes an artist can switch arts because the potential is already there and true creativity spreads itself. Thus a Husain can wield the camera as easily as his brush, a Kapil can turn to golf and, yes, an Arundhati can turn activist. Art, it would seem, is where you find it.

Question number two. Can you teach creativity? Perhaps not, but you can certainly open up a path. If my first theory is true and everyone is heir to their own brand of creativity, then all it needs is guidance to send them on their own road to accomplishment. My students, sometimes unused to the joys of poesy and good writing, respond to my urgings and seek out their own talents from within themselves. They finish the semester with wonderful poetry and writing of their own.

In fact, everyone has a calling and a need. It takes someone like Dr Suriya to listen and respond appropriately.

The author can be contacted at varma@shreevarma.com

The call of the muse