I’m please to bring you an interview with my friend and colleague Ms. Aswini Madhira. Aswini is a cognitive science researcher, and an artist in her spare time. She has previously contributed a personal essay to this blog. Today we speak about art and science; and about passion vs. pragmatism in choosing a career.
Amita: How did you become interested in art? Did you have formal lessons? Mentors?
Aswini: I think my experience with art started with me, no different from any other toddler, scribbling on the walls and my parents giving me a sheet of paper and a couple of crayons to save the walls from meeting their doom. As a kid I have always enjoyed filling up colours in the colouring books. Multiple volumes of colouring books were a part of my birthday gifts for a very long time.
Slowly I started recreating the images from those printed drawing books. This had become a weekend ritual when my mom noticed it and enrolled me into drawing classes. But the impatient kid that I was, wanting to turn Picasso overnight, got bored of the circles and strokes that I was asked to draw over and over again. What followed was a chain of events of me joining classes and quitting classes as a kid.
I was an impatient kid when it came to learning art and I wanted to become an artist overnight. As kids, we look for immediate results and we are vulnerable to disappointments, but we are also quick to overcome it and start all over again.
I hardly knew the concept of something being innate, somebody being born with it. Now I do think that it’s easier for someone who has a predisposition to art to develop the skill, but it is not impossible for someone without the predisposition to pick up a skill and master it, too. As a kid I don’t remember associating my failures to myself as a person, which as an adult I find myself doing more often than I like. I’m working on changing that.
I should say that not only have I become less impatient now about immediate success at a new endeavour, I’m also learning to value mistakes and failures for what they actually are – stepping stones.
Amita: The changing art-classes frequently – was that from impatience?
Aswini: My impatience was only a small factor. That resulted in me cribbing rather than in me moving on to another teacher. The quitting and joining different art classes was because of my father’s transfers. Sometimes, the class timings and my school timings would clash which led me to shift from opting for daily classes to weekly ones… I kept changing mentors every time we moved to a new city.
Amita: Did these moves interrupt your learning?
Aswini: Partly yes. I found myself going through the basics quite a few times over, because every time I joined a new class, the teacher would test my knowledge up until that point, and then only take me under their wing. And each of them had a new style of teaching. It made me very adaptable as a student and also made my basics strong. But had I spent the same duration learning under one mentor, I definitely would have learnt more.
Amita: When did you become serious about art?
Aswini: I think it was when we shifted to Chennai when I was 10, that I had started practicing drawing at home and enrolled in Carnatic Music classes out of compulsion (or rather, my mom’s passion for singing). I should thank her for pushing me then, for ever since, drawing, painting and singing have been my go to. I think I indulged in art when I was too young to understand the concept of ‘inspiration’.
The first ever artist I was introduced to was Raja Ravi Varma and the first ever singer I was introduced to was M.S Subbalakshmi. Personally, art has been my inspiration more than the artist. I am amazed by quite a few artists, but I still stick to the art for inspiration.
Amita: How did you discover these artists?
Aswini: I came across Raja Ravi Varma paintings in an art exhibition that I had visited in Hyderabad. The paintings were so lively, I was in awe! M. S. Subbalakshmi’s ‘Bhaja Govindam’ was the first thing I used to hear waking up. My grandfather used to play it on his tape recorder every morning immediately after he woke up.
Amita: Did your school have an art programme? Was art as important to you as academics?
Aswini: I am a proud DAV’ite [Dayanand Anglo-Vedic Trust group of schools]. Having studied in DAV school for 6 years, part of the pride is the immense exposure we got as students towards co-scholastics. Every week we had a 45-minute class for art, and we also had an art exam every year. It was probably the only exam I looked forward to.
Added to this, we were encouraged to participate in many inter-school competitions, be it art and craft, music, dance, literary activities, sports and many more. Consequently, I had participated in many such competitions and bagged prizes, which majorly boosted my morale to not take art lightly.
Amita: How did your family respond to your artistic pursuits?
Aswini: My parents never stopped me from taking part in such competitions in order to focus more on academics. I am fortunate enough to have parents who, till date, have only encouraged holistic growth. They never let the societal ‘trend’ or ‘fad’ influence the career path that their children chose to walk.
Although I had not considered art as a full time profession, I never wanted to give it up even as a mere hobby. The reason for not taking it up as a full-time profession was the naivete that came with growing up in a society that emphasised on ‘education’ and ‘marks’ and also needing to do a ‘real job’ and not wanting to let go of the comfortable life other ‘promising’ careers offered.
Amita: That sounds like a wonderfully nurturing environment. But you never considered doing art full-time? Has technology changed the viability of an artistic career?
Aswini: Yes, it was a question of whether I wanted to pursue it, myself. Given that the scope of ‘success’ in the field was less back then, it didn’t seem like a fair deal to me.
Times have definitely changed. I feel the success of an artist as a professional lies in how far your work reaches. And for our work to reach far and wide, it had to be of higher credibility.
But nowadays with increasing networks on social media, sitting at one place I can get 100 people to see my art at the least in the one hour of me posting an artwork online. Whether they like it or they don’t comes later, but the reach has definitely widened and that increases the opportunities that an artist could get to become successful. More of art is exposed and thereby greater the chances of it being an inspiration to many. The field sure seems to be providing greater opportunities which might not have been possible if there aren’t as many takers. So I think art inspires artists and artists make art. It’s interlinked, if one could say.
3) What inspires you to do art? Do you have a schedule? Do you wait for inspiration?
Aswini: I really wish I had a schedule, but I am bad at sticking to it.
I think my art is deeply driven by two things – my emotions and my primary job. Most often than not, me indulging in painting or singing has become a consequence of the workload that I have.
I’m of the opinion that when your passion is not your whole and sole profession, it becomes very difficult to balance both. Irrespective of how much I try, my primary job starts to determine the time I get to spend with art and music. At times, I manage to do three paintings in a week, and at times one painting in three months.
The only promise I have made to the artist in me, is to not ignore the urge to do art when an idea hits me, and at least make a quick drawing if not something elaborate, so as to not lose touch with the artform. In a way, during such hectic work schedule, singing helps, mostly because I can do it from where I am sitting (Thanks to my mom for pushing me to learn music too, I don’t think I can ever thank her enough for that).
Amita: I’m delighted that you make time for art in your busy schedule. Do you revisit your sketches later, to develop them?
Aswini: I’m afraid I don’t. Art and its perceiver share a unique characteristic. It may or may not elicit the exact same emotion every time. For me, it’s a different thing every time. As much as there are chances of me developing them, my fear of me spoiling them is dominant. Hence, I don’t as much as touch the paintings once I feel like it is done.
Amita: What role does art play in your personal life?
Aswini: Art is a major pick-me-up. When I have something running in my mind and I really need to think, I tend to sit and paint. Sometimes even just doodling helps me organize the tangled mess that’s in my head. Similarly, music calms me too. Just singing some songs or randomly singing Carnatic lessons that I was taught as a kid, helps me get through daily chores easily.
Amita: What advice do you have for aspiring artists? How important is a support system for artists?
Aswini: I would call myself an aspiring artist too. I’m no professional. I don’t personally believe in advice when it comes to art, to each their own.
If I could, I would tell my naive self from a couple of years ago to have more patience and that no skill can be acquired in a day. Had I not been impatient, I probably would have been one of those child artists who get interviewed for the art they do. Just kidding.
I’m of the opinion that more than anyone else, it is the artist who needs to be patient with oneself, for if we don’t respect our skill, no one else will. With the will to pursue it and the brains to propagate is, any artform can become a profession in our country.
Amita: So you’ve become more patient about taking the time it takes to acquire skills. When and how did this change happen?
Aswini: I don’t think I can recollect how the change happened, but I think interacting with people who learnt/were learning different skills helped. The interactions helped me realise the amount of time and practice it took to be so good at something and from then on I started having expectations proportionate to the amount of time I invested. Slowly, I started investing more time in practicing.
Amita: How did you become interested in science?
Aswini: I don’t know to which extent I deserve to answer this question, for I had always run away from science as we know it – physics chemistry and biology – back in school. It wasn’t until recently that I acknowledged myself as doing sciences.
I decided to be a psychologist towards the end of my schooling. Getting to study how we think and behave, getting to observe people intrigued me a lot. I had come across the subject called psychology when my mom was pursuing her post-graduation in Education, in distance and I was in my 12th grade.
Coming from a family of engineers, contrary to my belief, my choice of career was considered a breath of fresh air. My interaction with the subject per se was very little prior to me taking it up as a major for my under graduation. However, I do not regret my choice till date.
Amita: Do you think psychology and the behavioural sciences should be introduced in school at an earlier date? Both fields are growing rapidly in India, and there is demand for both in public policy and in industry.
Aswini: If you mean to introduce them as possible fields that one could opt, then may be yes. But if you meant to introduce them as subjects at a school level, then I am not sure if introducing the subjects at an early stage than is already will make a difference. I wasn’t aware of what happens in an engineering course nor the details of the subjects it covers when in 8th or 10th grade. Yet engineering is relatively a better known field than psychology or other behavioural sciences. I think it’s more important to talk about the profession rather than the subject per se.
Amita: How did you become interested in cognitive science?
Aswini: During my undergraduate days, I was exposed to a couple of mental health centres and the life of a counsellor and a clinical psychologist, as a part of my internship. I had understood that it was not my cup of tea, but the thought of not being able to study the same was not sitting well with me.
Amita: Tell us more about this. Many people still believe that psychology means just ‘clinical psychology.’
Aswini: True. Psychology is often associated with just therapy. It’s either that, or the moment I mention that I am studying Psychology, the first thing that people ask me is “Can you read my mind?”
We do not read minds. We study them. They are two completely different things.
Therapy and mental health were not my focus primarily. I wanted to go beyond that. It is one thing trying to study what is ‘healthy thinking’ versus what is ‘unhealthy thinking’, but I was talking on the lines of ‘How does thinking happen in the first place?’
One of my seniors then suggested that I consider a post-graduation in cognitive science where I would get to study human behaviour but from multiple perspectives. I was sold.
The first cognitive scientist I admired was Jonathan Smallwood, for his work in the concept of mind-wandering. I had related to the concept of zoning out and daydreaming, for I have caught myself engaging in the act multiple times. It intrigues me that something which is considered as lack of concentration, lack of focus, being very distracted, and is often frowned upon, became a phenomenon of fascination to this man.
There started my quest to research how one mind-wanders, how one thinks out of the box, how art happens, so on and so forth. What better way to club my love for art and my respect for science.
Amita: So Smallwood’s work questions the prevailing view that mind-wandering is a bad thing, the product of a lack of self-control? What were your own views of the intersection between mind-wandering and creativity?
Aswini: I didn’t know that the act of falling into self-induced thoughts that I engaged in was called mind-wandering. But the phenomenon as such was definitely not novel to me. Smallwood studies this phenomenon. I don’t think his aim was to question the stigma behind it.
Have I been scolded for mind-wandering, no. I did realise that mind-wandering could be a good thing slowly when it helped me come up with ideas (not considering the quality of the ideas) for painting. I would often just go into a thinking frenzy from one topic to another and end up with some kind of a muse for my next artwork. I have not really considered about what facilitates mind wandering as such, but somebody calling my name definitely snaps me out of mind-wandering. I don’t think I plan, decide and engage in mind-wandering. It seems to just happen.
The moment I get into a PhD and study either of these questions, I shall answer better! Until then, I am only a silent observer of my own mind blissfully wandering away. Just kidding.
Amita: Tell us a bit about your work in cognitive science.
Aswini: I study creativity cognition. I want to know how people come up with creative ideas, what does it take to come up with something novel, how do we identify something as ‘being creative’. It is not too long since I entered the field so I don’t think I can unravel any Pandora’s box, but so far my work entailed understanding if a wandering mind can brew rather creative ideas.
Amita: How do you study creativity? It’s often considered undefinable?
Aswini: I don’t think creativity is undefined. It is definitely defined and the most common way we understand it is as being something different from routine. I think the question is, are we (the research community) satisfied with this definition of creativity.
One of the experiments that we did as a part of my masters was to ask people to take part in an activity that vaguely required them to think out of the box and come up with novel functions for some regular objects. In a way creativity tapped in the lab is close to creativity that we see outside, but how practical is it to ask someone to ‘get creative’ within the four walls of a lab, within some stipulated time period and to which extent do we tap creativity in its true form, is indeed a question I am seeking answers for.
It has been little over a year since I completed my post-graduation and till date I have only enjoyed my journey.
Being a researcher, we are often found reading something or the other, picking up a new skill within the field or outside the field, interacting with people, having discussions on any given topic (silently cribbing about the salience of random articles on the internet that start with ‘Researchers say’ or ‘Research has found that’) and taking some time off in the whole of 24 hours to do absolutely no’think’ing.
Cognitive Science being an interdisciplinary field requires us to interact with people not just from the same field but any given field in general. Personally, I have yet to come across a field that does not concern mind or humans (aren’t we a self-centered lot).
I agree we get a lot of work done from inside the laboratory with proper facilities bolstering our work, but I’m of the opinion that a researcher with a mind that observes what is happening outside the lab, in the real world, will benefit more from the resources that any University or Research centre has to offer. I come from a family that highly respects the Indian culture of ‘Guru Parampara’ and ‘inheriting’ knowledge, not just acquiring it. I would say, having a mentor is of utmost importance in any field, not just cognitive science.
Amita: Tell us more about this concept. I’m not familiar with it.
Aswini: The way I understood it, the passing of knowledge is the key aspect of “guru parampara,” the lineage of teachers in other words. Taking the gurukul system of teaching, a Guru tests the eligibility of the person seeking to be taught before he accepted the person as his student. In a way, one had to earn the knowledge that one wishes to learn from the Guru. I think respecting that system, my parents have always emphasized that we work on becoming an eligible student worthy of learning something new from experts in the field, rather than learn things by ourselves.
Amita: And do you have mentors? In cognitive science, in other aspects of your life?
Aswini: Yes, I do have quite a few mentors from different phases of my life, who I go back to, who have helped me at times when I was confused or lost regarding a couple of decisions with respect to my professional life and sometimes even with respect to my personal life. My mentors have always been there to show me things from perspectives that I might not have been able to see from.
I think a mentor plays a major role in making us believe in the possibility of attaining a goal. When I believe that I have what it takes to be their student, I seek and approach potential mentors and ask him/her if they are willing to take me as their student. That’s my side of the argument. Now how did my mentors pick me, is something only they can answer. I’m not sure if I want to know their answer.
Amita: Cognitive science is a new field in India. What are the pros and cons of being a cognitive scientist in India?
Aswini: The awareness for cognitive science in our country is definitely less compared to other fields. It does seem to be increasing, but I feel it’s going to take longer for cognitive science aspirants to hear ‘Oh! That’s a good choice.’ and not ‘Oh! What’s that?’ whenever we speak of picking a career in this field. Even within the field heavy research is observed to happen in select topics when compared to the available spectrum of research abroad. With time, I hope to see that change.
On the brighter side, I have enjoyed the flexibility that cognitive science provides. During my post-graduation, as a batch we were all from varied educational backgrounds. From psychology to computer science engineering, from physics to medical research and life sciences, we had students with diverse backgrounds come together to study cognitive science and further continue as cog sci researchers.
Amita: “Flexibility” in what sense?
Aswini: Cognitive science being an inter-disciplinary field has a diverse course structure. From research and statistics to neuroscience, and mathematics to psychology, computational programming to judgement and decision making, we had covered wide horizons. In a way if one was good at certain subjects owing to their background, they faced difficulties understanding certain others. End of the day it was about which approach one would like to take to study mind/brain, what is the philosophy or school of thought that one would stand by, and so forth. That is the flexibility that I was referring to.
There are differences in how a psychologist vs a physicist approaches cognitive science, whether one comes up with a formula that explains a behaviour, or one uses codes and numbers to spin a theory, or one purely observes behaviour from the outside and speculate a trend, it is influenced by what a person’s belief is, and also what he/she is comfortable with, I guess.
Amita: Has being a cognitive scientist changed your approach to daily life?
Aswini: More than cognitive science as a field per se, I find myself influenced by the complete experience of post-graduation. Having studied about certain irrational biases we experience when we make decisions, it is easier for me to notice it now when I am being biased or making irrational choices (I still fall for biases. Now I just feel better knowing I’m not alone in falling for them). I do observe certain small changes in my personal life, in how I think, how I handle my emotions and attributions, and so forth, but to which extent do I owe it to cognitive science as a subject or to my experience of post-graduation I’m not sure. On a lighter note, I definitely enjoy mind wandering more now and I don’t blame myself for zoning out.
Amita: Working in academics is often costly to mental health. How do you prioritise your health at work? Are there accessible formal structures in place to get help easily and without shame?
Aswini: Research is an on-going process. So far, I haven’t come across any researcher who treats it like a 9-to-5 job. We are reading on the go, we are discussing on the go, we are thinking on the go. Of course, I don’t mean it in the sense of being a workaholic, it’s just that an idea could come from anywhere. Building it into a hypothesis, and converting it into a project requires that we sit at it, but the muse, in such a field, could be everywhere. Being in the atmosphere where everybody is constantly researching something, publishing their work, and so forth, it is difficult to keep calm. That could eventually take a toll on how we define our success. It helps having a schedule for oneself and voluntarily ensuring to not vex ourselves with things and take healthy breaks in between.
Academics not being a 9-to-5 job might not be the actual cause of stress. Not having a scheduled on and off time, results in us charting out our schedules by ourselves. Unwinding becomes the researcher’s responsibility. If the zeal comes from within then I don’t think that would cause someone to be stressed out. On the contrary, it is healthy that they are pushing themselves to do something, or produce papers, and so on for their own satisfaction. But falling prey to other’s zeal and enthusiasm and making ourselves believe that its either that way or highway is not healthy. Publication bias! I have heard a lot about it. I haven’t really reached the stage where I experienced it first-hand. But it’s sad if one is to assume that ‘non-significant results’ don’t carry the significance that ‘significant results’ seem to do. Is research all about confirming to things? I’m not sure.
Amita: Researchers often work alone; we end up feeling isolated. What role does working in isolation play in stress in academia?
Aswini: Do they work alone? Hmm, maybe I have confronted only the rosy side of it in the past few years of my association with research. For, I have always had my peers and seniors holding my back during my post-graduation and the help of my colleagues now as a research fellow at work. I think it depends on how one likes to work! I have learnt to be open about asking for help if I am stuck with something and so far I haven’t received a negative response, and even if I did, I was at least directed towards another source that could help me. Bringing multiple skills to the same project sounds like fun, but I don’t think we can rule out the difficulty of co-ordination when it comes to such a thing. I personally haven’t encountered such work myself, so I’m not sure if I can comment on that. When it comes to writing papers, yes it’s a one man’s job. But again, I like it that way, so I’m not complaining!
Having said that, we are not immune to stress and mental disorders, neither are we immune to the taboo that is attached with it. We do find people (within the academic community) to be more considerate when it comes to matters concerning mental health. If we reach a place where people can listen to someone talk about their visit to the therapist without feeling awkward, I think that would be a good step to begin with; being open enough to support a discussion, but not casual enough to conclude things about mental health, that is where I’d like to place myself.
Amita: What advice would you offer someone embarking on a PhD in India (any field)?
Aswini: I am embarking on that journey myself. All that I tell myself throughout the pursuit is that, getting admitted into a doctoral program doesn’t make someone an eligible doctoral candidate and getting rejected doesn’t make someone any less knowledgeable in the topic one is working on.
Academia in my little experience is a vast ocean, one can only be prepared to an extent and over a period one needs to surf based on the waves that hit them. The thought of embarking on my postgraduate studies came automatically while I was pursuing my bachelors and I don’t think I want it any other way.
My motivation is basically to continue research in the field and contribute back to the field.
Added to this, I have always wanted to teach. Interacting with students keeps me motivated. As a package, PhD seems like the next step towards becoming a professor and teaching. Hither forth I’m passing information that I have been enlightened with, for my experience is not yet first hand.
The topic we choose to work on for our PhD plays a major role in how we spend the next 5+ years. As much as it is possible to work on different things in the span of one’s career, the 5+ years of work and experience and the subject knowledge one builds during one’s PhD, drives the path forward. Further, having a mentor who is experienced in the field makes the transition into academia relatively smooth.
The most undervalued part of one’s PhD is the lab and the peers not just for the guidance and support concerning subject matter, but also to bolster us throughout the journey. Afterall, they would be our warm cup of coffee on a gloomy day, and as I have been warned, there would be many such gloomy days. After a hectic week of sitting with research papers and writing articles, if an interaction with a bunch of students can make me feel better, I’d consider myself happy in academia. The way I see, being in academia is an amazing exposure if only we grab an opportunity as and when it comes our way.
Amita: Any parting words for people considering, or beginning, a career in art or science?
Aswini: The journey is not going to be smooth. It is not a bed of roses. You are most likely to encounter sticks and stones. Being as they may be, they don’t come with the career choice you make. I don’t think the difficulty is a trait of the career choice. It is the trait of how efficiently you want to traverse the path. One could make any career choice a bed of roses, if mediocre work is satisfactory enough, but if one wants to make the most it, I think we’ll have to prepare ourselves for a roller coaster ride!
Aswini is an artist by passion, and a passionate researcher by profession. She is currently employed as a junior research fellow at Centre for Creative Cognition, S.R.University, Warangal. She is an avid reader, and enjoys reading books on philosophy, sci-fiction, satirical humour and majorly cognitive science which she claims, comes as an occupational hazard. She is trained in Indian Carnatic Music for 6 years. Occasionally, she tries her hand at poetry too. If you are on a solo vacation to one of the least happening cities and if there is a lady with a Murakami book in her hand and a cup of coffee in front of her, sitting in the silence of an empty cafe with some slow jazz music playing in the background, you have most likely found the woman in question. She enjoys discussions on topics with which you can never reach a conclusion. She safely promises that most often than not, they end with both the parties going back home in one piece.
Follow Aswini’s art on Instagram: Fauve_2020
Email Aswini: firstname.lastname@example.org