KOCHI: At the East India Street Cafe, Panampilly Nagar, the 78-year-old Sara Caleeckal stands out because of her silver hair and white saree. Her friends, the budding artists Thebzeera Valiyakath, Priyam Saini, Amal Joy and art impresario Reema Singh are all in their twenties and thirties. But along with them, Sara is showcasing her paintings at an exhibition where amateur talent has been allowed to showcase their works.
Sara has a painting titled, ‘Dance of a Dragon’. It shows a dragon curled up like a snake around the trunk of a tree while a squirrel rests near the tail. It has been done in the distinctive Gond tribal style. To learn this art form, Sara went to Chennai to attend a workshop by Biennale artists Subhash Singh Vyam and his wife Durga Bai, who are from Madhya Pradesh. Another work, of the blue-coloured Lord Krishna and Radha, with the gopis at one side, was done in the Madhubani style. The third is a simple abstract painting of a bamboo grove. If Sara sells a work, 20 per cent is set aside for poor cancer patients or underprivileged children.
On most days, at her home, at Irumpanam, when she awakens, if she feels happy, Sara will set up an easel and do a painting. On other days, when she feels a bit low, she sits down and writes a poem. Here is one called ‘Storyteller’:
I tell stories
with letters, with words,
with songs, with verse,
with lines, with curves,
with dots, with strokes,
with pencils and pens
sharper than swords,
with black charcoal,
with while chalk,
of myriad hues
of heaven, earth and seas,
of laughter and tears,
of excruciating ecstasy,
of divine pain…
And on other days, as a member of the Art Outreach Society, she goes to the Kakkanad District Prison, where she teaches art to the juvenile offenders as well as the women. “Some of the boys are unbelievably talented,” says Sara. “I am told they are lured into crime, as drug carriers, because of the easy money. They want to buy smartphones but their parents cannot afford it. Some belong to very good families.”
Not surprisingly, some of their artworks show blackened faces, an all-seeing eye and fences with sharp pointed ends, which has a trail of blood going like a band across it. “They feel much better after they do their paintings because they can express their anger or frustrations safely,” says Sara.
Meanwhile, in her own life, Sara had been a teacher for decades, in Mumbai, Tanzania and Chennai. An arranged marriage to John Mammen, a Naval officer in 1964, resulted in three children, two daughters and a son. Unfortunately, it was a difficult relationship and in 1988, the couple separated. Thereafter, Sara became a single mother. “For two years, I was ashamed to show my face in society,” she says. “I went through a period of depression. The fact is when trust is no longer there between the spouses, there is no point of staying together. However, it is the children who bear the emotional damage.” Any hope of reconciliation ended when John passed away in 2000.
“Life goes on,” says Sara. After her teaching career ended, Sara began a career of doing medical transcription online. Her knowledge of medicine helped her to detect a lump in her breast. A check-up at the Christian Medical College, Vellore, revealed that it was cancer. “Instead of chemotherapy I opted to remove the breast,” she says. And Sara learned some quick lessons. “Cancer made me aware of my mortality,” she says. “Before that, I would postpone things for tomorrow. Now I tell myself, ‘Don’t wait for tomorrow, do it right now’.”
What she does regularly is to go for a swim every evening at a local school. She swims for one hour and prefers the backstroke. “I feel so rejuvenated,” says Sara. “This is the best exercise at any age. To be honest, I feel more at home in the water than on land. That’s because I have been swimming since the age of five.”
Finally, when asked to give tips on how to lead a fulfilling life, Sara says, “Self-love is very important: Love your body, mind and soul. Most people do not like themselves. Do any activity that makes you feel passionate. And you will always feel young at heart.”