Actress, photographer, painter, poet. Deepti Naval has many facets. Some of them were revealed in the exhibition of her work, here in Delhi last month. Some of them FIRST CITY uncovers

Lost child? A woman, defiantly finding her way through this maze called life. Deepti Naval. A woman of beautiful contradictions. She looks timid and vulnerable. But there also resides in her, this spirit which is strong and which cries for freedom. Speculating on what is going on in her mind is a tough task, as she hesitantly stares from her liquid brown eyes into your searching ones.

Mystery fascinates Deepti. She wanted to be a nun when she was a child, “There is always something hidden. One can’t figure out what exactly is going on inside them.” Among her paintings, there is one self-portrait as a pregnant nun. The painting depicts much more but it also shouts plain rebellion. But a rebel against what? “Against conformity. I just want to constantly experiment with myself. I don’t want to do anything that should be done, I’ll decide what should be done,” she says, most simply. This constant need to challenge boundaries is so greatly embedded in her that it has almost become a philosophy she religiously follows. Experimentation is apparent in her career graph.

Her heritage is of a Dogri and Punjabi background, “My mother is Dogri but she was bron and brought up in Burma.” After a few years, the whole family (with two sisters and a younger brother) migrated to New York, United States, where she majored in painting from Hunter College, City University. Poetry was dabbled with, but back home, acting fascinated her more as a profession. As a result, there were movies like Kamla, Mirch Masala, Panchavati, Damul, Chashme Baddoor, Saath Saath, among many others.

In between came marriage with director Prakash Jha, which didn’t work out. Where the institution failed for her, she discovered a new appreciation for life and people. “Today, Prakash and I are better friends because now we have no expectations from each other. There is no role playing,” Deepti explains. The transcendence from initial hostility and discomfort to a more positive interaction, she attributes to time and its passage. “You have to be patient and open to let time pass and do its thing. You have to give time a chance for the anxieties and the hostilities to go and then you are able to look at things afresh. Then you realize that the man is still a good man. If a relationship has not worked out, why should one lose out on a human being?” she gently questions. Umm…gentle, another adjective that could be used to describe her. Where has this patience and perseverance come from? From her family, especially the women, “All the women in my family had a very progressive mindset. Mom is a painter, during the Partition days she used to direct plays to collect money for the refugees. My dadi also did a lot of social work for women. She must have done kanyadaan of 20 odd destitute girls.” What she imbibed from them was the fact that there was nothing she could not do, just because she was a girl.

Deepti went on to photography, poetry and painting. “I work with different mediums because there is constantly something one needs to say. I keep switching from one medium to another without being self-conscious.” She is wary of comitting to one medium because that too would mean conformity, boundaries. To break free is her desire. To stand on a hill, across a wide valley and feel the breeze blow in your face. No pretensions. Feel, touch yourself, touch the bark of a tree and sense.

She doesn’t understand what happiness is. “What does that word mean? I haven’t been able to find out. Happiness can be such a minute and momentary thing,” she feels. What gives her the greatest satisfaction is when people can relate to her. But why is it important that people should understand her? Deepti looks into space. A long pause. “It is important for me to connect. To be able to make somebody see something through my eyes,” she replies. To capture floating mages, Be it in the form of photographs of Ladakh or auto-biological paintings and poems. To sort out the clouds. That is happiness for her. In a form which can be extremely intense and disturbing. “When I was writing, I was putting down things, which were very

I want to constantly experiment
with myself. I don’t want to do
anything that should be done. I’ll
decide what should be done

nerve shattering. I can’t say I was happy doing that but I was happy that I was able to do that. I was able to convey what I felt.”

My baby glows a glassy blue, like fish on dark rocks at sea.

Reasons and incidents are of no consequence, the experience is. Now she feels she is at a stage when she is living her life in a way that each day is like the last day of her life. Giving fully to the moment. “Whatever there is, it is today. Now has to be valued,” she explains. There is life in her, animated and hungry and it comes across through those sad eyes.” What about cynicism? “Either you become cynical or you realize the worth of everything. Jitna Hai (however much), since it is yours, it is precious.” It’s as simple as that.

Leave me here and go away, This place I enter alone

One of her paintings depicts a woman, naked and bare, standing in the doorway, defiant and ready to face the world, while the man is crouching in a corner with his head low, weak and crumbling. Is depression addictive? “Yeah, I have had phases where I knew I was being pulled down and I would go lower and lower. I knew nothing could help me. I had to come out of it myself, but only after I hit the lowest point. There is this method to madness. Really!” and she laughs. Then looking guilty, she tries to sober down again, “For some reason you start thinking that everything around you is wrong. And you keep going lower. It was a phase that lasted about two-and-a-half years. Then, one day, I pulled out a canvas and decided that ‘I had to paint. I didn't want to just sit and become this pathetic creature’. I just decided to try and transfer all these blocked energies into creative areas. And that’s how I survived that phase, it was my survival kit.it.”

Life, especially relationships, have hurt her in the past, but now she depends only on herself. “I am also very lucky to be sharing my life with this wonderful man, Vinod, who understands me and who doesn’t feel threatened by my independence and my need for freedom. He is strong within himself. He lets me be who I am, that's why we are together,” she reveals. The gentleman in question is Vinod Pandit, singer, television producer and actor, nephew of Pandit Jasraj. “What I have now is beautiful and I don’t want to touch it. It may appear that my decision to not get married again could mean that I am not sure yet, that I have doubts. But the fact is that we don't want to tamper with a good thing. Don’t want to spoil it by getting bound by this institution called marriage.“

The future is unpredictable and she has accepted the fact. “I would not take the liberty to think that this is a permanent state of affairs. It many not be. Life is about impermanency. So, I value it all the more because I know that it may not last forever. Now I have come to a stage where I enjoy every bit of what l live.”

It itched and ached
her skin got sore
It had begun to hurt like hell
and bite into her pores

One day when no one looked
she quietly pulled it off
Folded it carefully and placed it
on top of the shelf

After that day
no one ever recognized her again

'The Mask'
by Deepti Naval