Wabi sabi in my teacup

Recently, I took my mother to my favourite store in Bandra – Cheap Jack. An enthusiasm for shopping for household utilities is something that I share with Ma. We bought a few things from the store that included two large coffee mugs. Nothing too ornate — one, in a cute, powder blue colour whereas the other one, bore a graphic print of a cow. That evening I left both the mugs on the ledge of the kitchen sink so they could get a quick rinse before use.

In the morning I woke up to my mother speaking to me in a low, plaintive tone. She was trying to articulate how she accidentally knocked over one of the new coffee mugs, which has now chipped off.

My heart sank.

Which one? I asked.

The blue one.

I got out of my bed, poured out some tea in the other coffee mug as we sat down to think what could be done with the chipped powder blue mug.

My chipped, powder blue mug (photograph: Debdutta Ray)

Should we fill it with mud and turn it into a planter? I ventured.

I don’t know, I’m really sorry.

Should we… junk it, and buy another piece?

A pair of sad eyes met mine.

Just when I was getting used to the idea of throwing the coffee mug away I remembered the concept of wabi sabi and its complementary practice of kintsugi – the Japanese art of repairing ceramics with melted gold.

Kintsugi — cracked bowl repaired with gold (source: Pinterest)

Quite recently, I had learnt about wabi sabi in Andrew Juniper’s Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence, a slim book that I had picked up from a bookstore at the Tokyo Narita airport on my recent visit to Japan, just before getting on to a plane to Mumbai. Upon leafing through the pages I remembered how I fell in love with the concept when I had first read about it.

And then I remembered that even today glimpses of the time-honoured practice of wabi sabi (that came about in fifteenth century) is persistent in Japanese culture, visible in its furniture pieces, crafts, crockery, houses, shops, parks, street corners, tea ceremonies and even in the appreciation of the seasonal cherry blossoms, rains and snows. Wabi sabi pervades into elegant Japanese manners, too, their intuitive nature and keen eye for detail, no less. At this point I cannot help but mention a small incident that warmed my heart.

So, my friend and I had just finished our shopping at a huge store named Daiso in Tokyo. It was an evening when the store was packed to its capacity, the cash registers kept dinging away, and yet the cashiers were never without their characteristic composure. Having made the payment one is expected to help themselves in getting all their stuff together, go near the exit where new plastic carry bags are kept in neat rolls, tear out how many ever bags they need, pack their stuff in and leave. When my turn came the plastic bags were all gone. I had to turn around and bother a cashier to arrange for a couple of big plastic bags for me. I felt terrible about it when I saw that this lady had at least twenty people standing in a queue in front of her. Despite that she heard me out, smiled at me and asked me to wait a few seconds. In the next few seconds she swiftly bent over and conjured up two big plastic bags from under her desk. Holding one in each hand she asked me sweetly which colour I preferred: pink or orange. I was… well, I just could not stop smiling. I chose two pink bags and thanked her, maybe, twenty times and walked out of the store, still smiling.

Juniper elucidates the concept of wabi sabi that in and of itself refuses being put into words:

Wabi sabi is an intuitive appreciation of a transient beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world. It is an understated beauty that exists in the modest, rustic, imperfect, or even decayed, an aesthetic sensibility that finds a melancholic beauty in the impermanence of all things.

All the virtues that wabi sabi aesthetics nudges us to be interested in — simplicity, rusticity, randomness, asymmetry and decay – are diametrically opposed to all the established standards of beauty. Juniper writes, for instance: rustic-style bowls and tea utensils distilled the power and randomness of the flows of gases and ash in the kiln and their asymmetry offered almost endless potential for aesthetic appreciation.

Water feature at Kennin-ji Zen temple compound, Kyoto (Photograph: Debdutta Ray)

Wabi sabi holds that with the development of language, since childhood, we keep moving further away from directly perceiving the world. Boxing and labelling everything into neat categories and types profoundly influences how we interact with others while limiting our experience of the world.

So the terms wabi and sabi both find their roots in the nihilist Zen cosmic view, and between them convey the interplay between youth and old age, beauty and ugliness, life and death — the rhythms of nature. If one wished to be more specific, wabi tends to be more associated with lifestyle, whereas sabi is often used to describe the more physical characteristics of objects that display a sense of the impermanent and whose forms are astringent and unpretentious.

The wabi sabi sentiments of “transience”, “impermanence”, “loneliness” and “melancholy” are not experienced with their negative connotation. If anything, it puts things in perspective for us — by bringing death into the equation, we learn to appreciate each moment better. Juniper writes, By emboldening the spirit to remind itself of its own mortality it can elevate the quality of human life in a world that is fast losing its spirituality. 

Shop in a bylane of Asakusa district, Tokyo (photograph: Debdutta Ray)

However, just because wabi sabi celebrates imperfections, it is not to say that an artist can get away with an amateurish, lazy rendering of their creation in the name of wabi sabi. It is only when the artist has learnt to look beyond achieving perfection that comes about through rigorous and endless practice that wabi sabi is attained.

Back to my chipped mug. I have been looking for materials (something less expensive than gold, surely) with which I can repair and prettify my chipped mug, while I am also considering how I might incorporate kintsugi-ness into my life. Maybe I should start with kindness and forgiveness towards myself and others, ease into my body, my age, move away from mulling over the cracks and chips in my life, have no intention whatsoever to find closure, and love the people in my life with their interesting flaws and imperfections.



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