Dharma is a complex concept of central importance in Indian philosophy and religion, with multiple meanings in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. It is an organizing principle that applies to human interaction with other humans, nature, inanimate objects, and all of the cosmos and its parts (Hinduism); cosmic law and order, and teachings of the Buddha (Buddhism); a supreme path (Jainism); or the path of righteousness and proper religious practice (Sikhism).
Rather than attempt to explain it with words, the West Windsor Arts Center is exhibiting works by artists of the Indian diaspora. “Dharma in the 21st Century” is on view through June 24, with a reception Sunday, May 21, 4 to 6 p.m. Through the sale of artwork, organizers hope to raise funds to support the Clean Ganga Fund, an Indian national effort to save the endangered holy river.
The Ganga, or Ganges, River is worshipped as a goddess. Hindus bathe in its waters, paying homage to their ancestors and to their gods by cupping the water in their hands, lifting it, and letting it fall back into the river. They offer flowers and rose petals and float shallow clay dishes filled with oil and lit with wicks (diyas). On the journey back home from the Ganges, they carry small quantities of river water with them for use in rituals, and when a loved one dies, their ashes are brought to the river. Due to human, industrial, and ceremonial religious waste, the Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers in the world.
“Gandhi lived on the principles of dharma,” says curator Hetal Mistry, who recently made a trip to her native India, visiting the oldest living city of Varansi through which the Ganga flows. “It’s not easy to get to, but everyone wants to go once in a lifetime,” she says. The trip was a surprise gift from her husband to celebrate a big birthday. They took the Maharaja Express, which Mistry describes as being like a cruise on a train, from Delhi to seven other cities, including Varansi. She witnessed the evening prayers on the banks of the river that have been performed for thousands of years, with masses of people gathered on boats and on the banks. Though traditional to bathe in the water, “it was not easy with all the people” so they filled an empty bottle and sprinkled it on their heads. “It was very touching to see the worshipping on the river. It was a life-changing moment, and I had to do something when I got back.” The exhibit on dharma came to her, with the goal of doing something to benefit the river’s cleanup effort.
For Mistry, dharma is the combination of values she seeks to live by: truth, compassion, purity. “If we have these values, our lives can be different. People are into social media and getting more information, but we’re losing these values. This is about bringing these values back. The truth is the sun rises every morning; it never forgets. As human beings we have to have that conviction that we learn from the sun or the moonrise.”
Part of dharma is meditation. “We judge people by outward appearance, but we need to look inside ourselves. Compassion — we must do good for others not to get something in return, but just to do good. Purity, like the lotus flower, grows from the mud. If you are pure you can help other people.”
Mistry makes artwork from her studio in a home in the Estates at Princeton Junction, where she lives with her husband and two sons. The home’s furnishings combine elements of her heritage with American design, such as a raw-edge table designed by George Nakashima grandson Ru Amagasu and a Steinway grand piano — her husband and older son play.
When Mistry and her husband visited Ahmedabad, the former capital of Gujarat, they dined at an outdoor restaurant with low tables, sitting on the floor, and thought how comfortable it was and how nice it would be to do the same at home. Mistry’s husband found Amagasu, then at Willard Brothers Woodworking in Trenton, and commissioned a low table. Through the process they met Amagasu’s mother, Myra Nakashima, who runs Nakashima Woodworkers in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
Making art has always been a part of who Mistry is. As a child, she often doodled in her books at school. By eighth grade she decided to go to art school and studied graphic design and illustration in Vidyalaya, earning a bachelor’s of fine art. Her father, a physician, and stay-at-home mother encouraged her artwork. “A majority of physicians in private practice want their kids to take over, but he knew I was more interested in art so never pushed me,” she says. Her brother and sister are architects, her sister’s husband is an architect, and her brother’s wife is a designer — the only physician in Hetal’s generation is her own husband.
Born in Gujarat and raised in Mumbai, Hetal was 22 when she came to the U.S. to marry Kavin Mistry. He had grown up in East Windsor, but their parents knew one another and it was the typical “we have a girl, they have a boy, let’s see if they like each other,” says Mistry. They exchanged letters and calls and met for the first time when he was visiting grandparents in India. She was 19 when they began a two-year engagement, then started the paperwork to immigrate.
Hetal worked as an illustrator, doing cell animation for international TV commercials during the year of waiting for the paperwork. It was nice work to leave behind, but she was excited about her new family and a new beginning in the U.S.
Kavin was still in medical school at Robert Wood Johnson in New Brunswick, and the couple lived with his parents in East Windsor. Soon he started his residency and then a two-year fellowship in Philadelphia. They moved to the Avalon apartments behind the Quaker Bridge Mall in Lawrence, with Kavin commuting, and bought their home in West Windsor shortly after.
Hetal returned to school, earning an associate’s degree in graphic design at Mercer County Community College, and then found a job at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she worked until her first son was born in 2003. She also helped her in-laws with their online healthcare marketing business. When her son was 2 she started making art again, and had a solo exhibit at the Erdman Gallery at Princeton Theological Seminary in 2008. That show was well received and sold well, and she went on to have shows in Lambertville and New Hope. In 2011, when her second son was 2, she rolled her canvases in a tube to carry on the flight to India for a show. After learning to making frames and stretching the canvases, she sold a third of what was exhibited. “I invited faculty and colleagues from college that I hadn’t seen in 15 years,” she says. “It was like a reunion.”
Mistry likes to find the beauty in nature. “There’s a lot of negative media out there and people forget about the beauty. My goal is to capture those moments that people pass by and put it on canvas, such as the dew drop on a leaf or moonlight on a lake, and bring it to everyone to enjoy.”
She has exhibited at both the Princeton and West Windsor arts councils, and at the Mercer County Artists Show and the Texas Watercolor Association, where she won an honorable mention. At the West Windsor Arts Center, she has served on the gala and exhibition committees and spearheaded the gala decorations.
One of Mistry’s paintings in “Dharma in the 21st Century” shows a woman lighting a lamp. “In the evening in Varansi, there is a peacefulness, with blues and greens. You can see buildings along the water and twinkling lights from windows. There are people in small boats, and it is tradition to light a lamp and leave it in the river with a few flowers. In Indian tradition, when you pray you light a lamp to remind yourself of all the good things out there to connect you to a higher power, and to see inside.
“I learned a lot in college,” she continues, “but all of this, it is a gift that comes out on my canvas.”
Says fellow dharma artist Aparajita Sen: “My painting process evolves from a meditation that yields a state of mind that transcends mere rendering of thoughts and images and presents a deeper sense of reflection.”
Dharma in the 21st Century, West Windsor Arts Council, 952 Alexander Road, Princeton Junction. Opening reception Sunday, May 21, 4 to 6 p.m. On view through, Saturday, June 24. 609-716-1931 or westwindsorarts.org.
Participating artists: Vimala Arunachalam of Plainsboro; Anjana Babu, Sheetal Bagewadi, and Aparna Deshpande of Monmouth Junction; Ketut Budiawan of Bali; Uday Dhar of New York City; Rochana Dubey of Princeton; Spriha Gupta of Skillman; Parul Mehta of Mumbai; Jyoti Menon of Lawrenceville; Divya Attri, Hetal Mistry, Kavin Mistry, and Aparajita Sen of Princeton Junction; Suvarna Nagaraju of Belle Mead; and Anusha Saran and Vishal Shah of West Windsor.