|Life, to her, is a series of blessings;
She, in return, blesses life with her gifts of art.
A woman, Hindu, Muslim, artist and mother —
her journey has been a lyrical, continuous line connecting faiths, art forms, and hearts;
From India, to Iran, Kuwait, Germany, and the United States —
her work has been the fruit, and the instrument, of the universal One.
This seeker of truth is Salma Arastu, whose gentle, poetic, and fearless presence
emanated ripples of unity and love to all, from this Saturday’s Awakin call.
Pavi, our moderator, recently served at a 30-day Vipassana retreat,
where she witnessed the deep connection between art and spirituality.
“One young server touched me so much. No matter what she did,
the artfulness was breathtaking. There was nothing careless about it,
but a moving reverence to the minutia — down to the way she arranged
the milk carton.
One meditator said, ‘When you walk into a room where everything is so thoughtfully
and beautifully arranged with love, it really reminds you of what you are here to do,
and renews your commitment to it.’”
Childhood of Blessings
Salma Arastu was born into a big, Hindu family in Rajasthan, India,
where her family had immigrated to, from Pakistan, as refugees.
She is the youngest of ten siblings. She lost her father when she was 10 years old.
Her mother was a very spiritual person. Since childhood, she has told Salma
that “We are all same, and belong to one God” — a thought that Salma
carried throughout her life.
At birth, Salma received a “blessing” from God. She was born without fingers
on her left hand.Before she realized that she was missing anything, her mother
told her,“God gave you this life for a special reason. You should try to find
that reason.”With this blessing, “I could do everything. I was full of joy and energy, all the time,
” said Salma. “Spiritually, I was given the blessing that I could be very close to God,
right from the beginning. Lord Krishna has been with me each and
every step, and guided me toward my art.”
(All images courtesy of Salma Arastu)
Salma started drawing when she was four or five years old,
and Salma would draw in continuous lines, making shapes and figures.
Her family recognized her passion, and nourished it. Art became a need for Salma,
helping connect her inner and outer rhythms. Salma also realized,
“I have to do something important, because God has given me this life not without a reason.”
Indeed, it takes a wise and compassionate mother, and a encouraging family,
to turn each gift of life into a blessing from God.
With the support of her big family, Salma went to pursue art education in Hyderabad.
There, with the encouragement from a professor, Salma, for the first time,
started to question why she was drawing those lines.
The inquiry continued into her Masters studies in Baroda. “I was too young to realize why I was doing it.”
With the growing life experience, Salma realized: “I want to connect the humanity. I want to bring people together.” She started to draw groups of people dancing, rejoicing, meditating, chanting together. She felt guided, not planning her work. “The lines are the light, showing me the paths of my journey.”
Living in Iran and Kuwait
After Salma married into a big Muslim family and embraced Islam, the lyrical line of her life led her to work in Iran and Kuwait, where she was exposed to Arabic calligraphy. She was captivated by the beauty, and started to copy them, not knowing what the characters meant. That “not knowing” made her more free. “I can’t describe the connection of all these lines. The Arabic calligraphy and the continuous lines just flow together. My handed is guided; it is just an instrument.”
Pavi marveled at how it came naturally to Salma that the heart leads the head. Salma said, “I don’t know, but I am so grateful.”
Contrary to the stereotypical portraits of the Middle East, Salma recalled her years in Iran and Kuwait fondly. “I remember Iran was a beautiful, beautiful country. The people, the culture, the food, the art, the carpet, were all absolutely beautiful.”
“Kuwait is much more liberal than people thought. Very fashionable, independent, and free women… The Quran taught people to dress modestly, but didn’t prescribe the covering of women’s face.”
As a result, Salma said, “I felt very hurt during 9.11, because my God did not guide us to kill.”
After that, she went deeper into Arabic calligraphy, and learned Arabic, to show people the interconnection. “I want to share the message of peace in Quran. The religion is only there to guide you to lead a harmonious life with each other — a universal message in all religions. It is only when we separate God, we destroy the image of God.”
One of Salma’s favorite verses in Quran says, “God created men and women. Then he made different nations and tribes, so that you know each other.” Salma was inspired, “God created the diversity for us to learn from each other, and to live in harmony with each other, not to label and disconnect each other. God created humanity as one.”
Pavi echoed with a quote she loved, “Distance is meant to relate, not to separate.”
Beauty and Unity in Diversity
To Salma, diversity is the principle of nature. “Why do we appreciate the varieties of flowers in nature, but fight for the differences in humanity? Because of the mind-made ego. We waste the gifts from God on fighting with one another.”
Salma’s personal life is full of stories of unity in face of diversity. Her family was initially shocked to hear her decision to marry — and to become — a Muslim. But to her relief and gratitude, her mother said, “Your destiny is with you, and my blessings are with you.”
For Salma, it all happened naturally. “When I married, my God came with me. He walked with me. I never had any conflict in my mind. Everything that happened in my life has been pre-planned, and there is meaning and purpose in it.”
When Deven asked about how to find unity with diverse groups in day to day life, Salma answered, “Love them, know them, merge with them. The mind should be free. The heart should speak. Connect on the level of humanity. If I approach with love, there is love. If I approach with doubt, there is doubt.”
Creative Flow and Journeys
For Salma, art is her worship, her practice, and her discipline.
“I won’t plan anything. I just go directly to the canvas. I go to the studio every morning, and just start painting. Cut off all distractions, and just paint. It has been my discipline and practice for many many years, with the support of my husband and family. That practice gives me energy for the rest of the day, and life.” When her children were young, Salma and her family lived in an apartment in Iran. “When the children take a nap, I would go into the kitchen and paint. Every day, one hour at least, and continue to paint every day.”
“I work on three or four pieces at the same time. I move from one to another. They have similar themes, they move along together. They are so strong, I just let them come out, from heart to hand to the canvas. There is no measured time for any work. I am getting out of the way of the work.”
Salma’s art works has also evolved over the years. “I grew up reading Mira Bai. Through my journey I found Rumi. I call my life — in search of eternal love, from Mira Bai to Rumi.”
After college, her paintings exhibited the search for something, full of energy and upward movement. Then, the connecting lines displayed myths and mysteries, because “I was not sure what I was doing with those lines, or why.” Now, in a more mature stage of life, Salma carries the often-implicit message of interconnectedness in all her work.
Ripples of Art
Salma noted, “My art represents my stories, my joys, my sorrows. But when others see my art, people tell me the art works are their stories, their joy. I am telling everybody’s story. People see the celebration of life.”
There are endless encounters and ripples of the labor of love. For example, a lady came to Salma’s studio, and was brought to tears when she connected with a painting called “When She Became a Widow.”
(When She Became a Widow, 2004 Graphite and Acrylics on Paper-Canvas 36″/60″)
Business of Art
A caller asked an important question, which led to a beautiful and honest discussion on the business of art. The caller said, “When you have to price your art, you are putting a value on something that in essentially priceless.”
Salma agreed. “At the beginning, I just put random prices on the paintings. Slowly, I learned ‘the business.’ For example, if I do a show in New York City, the artworks would be priced higher.”
Living as an artist, Salma has to think about the commercial aspects, and think about it from the buyers perspective. But again, for Salma, “Business and art flows together. In the morning, I do art. In the afternoon, I think about the business — how should I send proposal to museums, how to connect with clients. These questions are always in my mind. We are living human beings, and I don’t believe in starving artists.”
Salma also educates people to appreciate art. “My intention is not to make it expensive. If your heart is true, then the business is also true.” She doesn’t advertise her art on Yelp.com, but she applies for grant, hosts open studio, and sends out newsletter a few times a year.
Salma is also an entrepreneur. “I have been doing greeting cards since I same to the U.S. I saw no Islamic or Indian greeting cards, so I started doing it. I started with 4 designs, and now I have 114 designs in the catalog, through mail order. I sell about 15,000 to 20,000 cards during Ramadan. That generates enough income to support the studio rent of $1,200. I am grateful for these things that just happen.”
When asked how the ServiceSpace community can be of help, Salma said, “I need your blessings and good wishes, to continue painting, and spreading the message of hope and love. Also, come and visit me in the studio.”
Another way we can help, is to help Salma raise the necessary funds to receive a $5,000 matching grant from East Bay Community Foundation, to create a new painting series “Unity of Symbols and Sacred Words.” “These new works will become an artistic endeavor to help audiences understand the common threads across cultural, national and religious lines.” Click here to learn more and lend your support.
The hour quickly flew by, overflowing with beauty, insights and gratitude.
Pavi concluded, “Art is one of those channels where we can access the spirit more easily. Without words and concepts. It is a very direct experience. When you have artists who are so tuned into the deeper reality, and are on a sincere quest to discover truth for themselves, and to share them with humanity, it becomes all the more powerful.”
I think we all agree, and are grateful for sharing the blessings of Salma, with Salma, through Salma.