Vignettes from India: Beatrice Wood
I was completely dazzled by her: one of the most beautiful, exciting and stimulating women I have ever been privileged to meet: Beatrice Wood. I was just eighteen and she was a legend, more than half a century older than I, but young and vivacious in spirit. Beatrice had been the toast of Paris and New York, one of the founding members of the Dada style of art, lover of Marcel Duchamp, and subject of the classic Truffaut film: Jules Et Jim. She was recognized as one of the world’s finest ceramic artists and was, to me, a creative genius. She was also one of the most intelligent and well-educated people I have ever met, conversant in almost any subject, fascinated with life. I worked for her that summer and the next gardening and helping her in her workshop. Most of my time, however, was spent in rapt attention to the entrancing stories of her life and adventures. In recent years, she had traveled extensively in India. When she noticed my deepening interest, she invited me to accompany her there.
It was Beatrice who introduced me to South Asia. It was her friends (remarkable Indian women leaders) who opened doors to me in homes throughout the country. She suggested to me my career: to spend my life making a document of the rural arts and crafts of India. We traveled in India together when I was twenty years old. That experience formed for me a basis for a wonderful life: forty-four years of field research in the subcontinent. She seemed so frail during that trip that, at seventy-seven, I thought she was going to die. It was her last trip to India, but only because Beatrice returned to the West to become even more famous — her work in demand by museums and collectors around the world. I came home to marry my love, Helene. Beatrice and she conducted a friendly rivalry for my affections for years to come. The three of us spent weeks together in London, Paris and New York, and always I learned from her insightful perceptions into life and human creativity.
My adventures in India each year since then were, in part, always recorded for Beatrice. As she grew older, her excursions away from her home in the mountains of southern California became less frequent. When we would visit, I would bring new photographs of India to share with her. Her responses until the end were always excited, her comments stimulating. Each trip I searched everywhere for special pieces of folk art to bring to her. Watching her eyes light up when I gave them to her always brought back memories of the museums we had visited together in other parts of the world.
Beatrice expressed her remarkable spirit in art up until the moment she died in 1998 just after her 105th birthday. At that time I was at a sacred festival in the Himalayas at dusk surrounded by thousands of singing, praying people. I took a small terra-cotta dish filled with ghee and a wick and lighted it, floating it down the River Ganges to join a galaxy of other such lamps. They were radiant in the dark. And as always I thought of Beatrice: that illuminated soul who had so transformed my life, as she had that of so many others.I walked to my destination, which was closed, and turned back through the crowd, now looking for this man. By the time I reached him it had been perhaps ten or fifteen minutes. By then he had somehow maneuvered himself to a vacant post and had squirmed upright to face his bowl and the stream of passersby. This time I was somewhat prepared and squatted beside him to place a large bill in his bowl. We spoke a few words of greeting. He was pleasant, direct, and proud. His eyes held such integrity and a challenge not to pity him. And I moved on.
The experience left me with many questions. Who was he? Was he born that way? Was it an accident? How does he live? Does anyone help him or is he truly alone? Answers I will never know. It caused me yet again to really question my identity, my life, my choices and my complaints. It haunts me still — and this was only the last such experience in India, although it was one of the most potent. I have no answers. I just try to move ahead. But India always challenges me, often when I least expect it, keeping me aware of the dangers of my complacence.