Karma Burning: Episode II
Karma Burning: Episode II
By: Dr. Tracy L. Hackett
Pre-dawn I awoke into the inky, sultry breath of the Kerala jungle. I couldn’t see my hands in front of my face and eyes wide, I lifted them up to stretch inside of my mosquito net to remember where indeed I was and that I was still in a body. Haunting sounds of unknown birds and lions roaring reverberated across the nearby reservoir. It was hard to tell if they were near my door or below the balcony or miles away. My flashlight investigation confirmed that I had indeed left off in the same place my deep black-out sleep had started the evening before. Giant flying roaches, oversized fairy-like katydids, creeping stick bugs, hand-sized moths were all pounded furtively at the lifeless beaming light bulb screwed into the wall outside my door. Ducking through that, I made my way into the massive open-air meditation hall and practiced a taichi routine to settle my nerves and then some yoga as I waited for the sun to come up.
Eventually, people filtered into the hall for the morning meditation. Chai was served afterward and I began to get acquainted with the swamis and staff of the ashram. People from all over the world, and more importantly from all over India, came to this simple but sprawling sanctuary for retreat.
It was an idyllic setting, to say the least, and welcoming on all accounts (mostly), but I was filling a role that is normally reserved for upper caste males. My ignorance of this fact was short-lived as I set to work that very day. The priests did their level best to disabuse me of my assumption that this deity painting was perfectly fine in my capable hands. Those are stories are numerous and quite funny in hindsight, but for another time. The process of overcoming the cultural obstacles and finally getting the “scaffolding” up and the ground of the ceiling prepared took nearly three months and substantial negotiating efforts.
The temple that I was to paint was transformed with row upon row of sapling trees cut and roped together with jute line and topped off with 3/8” plywood sheets that teetered on the uneven tops. I had to mask a miserable fear of heights and figured out early that this set up was yet another tactic to deter me from my objective. The ascent to the top was a two-stage rickety mess of a thing. A hand-fashioned bamboo ladder with rungs too far apart brought me to a landing made of old doors, then a metal ladder of ½” rebar took me to my new worksite for the seven or so months. Since the plywood sheets didn’t cover the entire scaffold area, I needed to slide them around while up there and arrange them in overlapping configurations to prevent them from cracking and bowing as I stood and stepped. Most of the village men who were tasked at helping me prep the ceiling surface wouldn’t even go up there. The few who would ascend had ulterior motives that were not appreciated. at. all. Swatting advances, changing crew, and avoiding a 19’ fall from my perch turned out to be the least of my problems as my work commenced.
I had to work fast to get the 39’x17’ four-panel vaulted ceiling from its cob-webbed blank state into a painted celebration of one of the central themes of the Bhagavad Gita. The Vishwaroopa is the presence of Krishna that Prince Arjuna bore witness to after goading his mysterious friend and advisor to show him who he really was. The popular representation of this overwhelming revelation of divine power and majesty is a central figure with “honey-colored” skin, 19 heads that included popular Hindu deities and 22 arms each holding weapons. The deity image is obviously packed with symbolism, some of which I will go into later on. The rudimentary ceiling plan I had received from the swami/ashram director two years earlier had neglected to include the 5” planar gutter in between each of the panels. This required a significant re-scaling of the over one hundred scale-sized situ drawings I created from an elevation model of the ceiling I had made. They were meant to speed my process and ensure a reasonable degree of accuracy in the perspective shifts. My drawing of Siva now looked more like Elvis. Make a plan and the gods laugh.