Beauty · Personal reflections

Decorating in the Times of Corona

With all that is going on around us in the world, does it even make sense to think about decorating your home, some may wonder. Well, why not? Perhaps it makes all the more sense to not only think about making our homes more beautiful and more comfortable, but actually doing it – without going outside the home, of course. When the environment around us reeks of uncertainty, fear, chaos, it makes perfect sense to create serenity, harmony, beauty in our homes – both our physical homes and our inner, real, truer homes within.

This is my story of decorating in the times of corona. Decorating my outer home, while being in a lockdown.

“It is necessary that those who create, whether in great things or small, whether in the unusual masterpieces of art and genius or in the small common things of use that surround a man’s daily life, should be habituated to produce and the nation habituated to expect the beautiful in preference to the ugly, the noble in preference to the vulgar, the fine in preference to the crude, the harmonious in preference to the gaudy. A nation surrounded daily by the beautiful, noble, fine and harmonious becomes that which it is habituated to contemplate and realises the fullness of the expanding Spirit in itself.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, 1: 452).

A home is a living thing. No, let me correct that – a home is living being. It breathes, grows, matures, evolves, renews itself.  It requires care and love like all other living beings, if it has to keep doing its dharma of giving soothing refuge and calming protection to those who come into its shelter at the end of every day.

Over time a home, like its inhabitants, also begins to get tired and show signs of age. And that’s when we, the inhabitants of the home take the time to help the home renew and refresh itself. These acts are called home renovation in more technical terms.

“The Divine is in things also and that is why they must be treated with care. (The Mother, CWM, 14: 323)

Recently, my husband and I embarked on such a project at our home. Our home needed some minor fixing ups, a few necessary updates which had been long overdue, but more importantly, it really needed a fresh coat of paint – both indoors and outdoors. The woodwork and metalwork throughout the house also needed painting, polishing and varnishing. Since we were going to get all that done, we decided we might as well get all the wooden and rattan furniture in the home painted and polished.

This was going to be a time-consuming project as ours is a two-storey, fairly large sized house with several outdoor spaces and a small garden. Which is one of the reasons why we had been postponing it for a couple of years (other reasons being some family situations and the financial aspect of the project).

“Not to take care of material things which one uses is a sign of inconscience and ignorance.

“You have no right to use any material object whatsoever if you do not take care of it.

“You must take care of it not because you are attached to it, but because it manifests something of the Divine Consciousness.” (ibid)

Anyway, this year we decided to go for it all. We found a contractor, negotiated the terms and the work started. Slowly, with every passing day, as the carpenters and painters picked up speed in their works, the chaos around us began to get bigger as space after space was being taken apart. But in a couple of weeks, we were also beginning to see the results and the freshly painted corners and spaces were starting to look fresh and new. This feeling that soon every space in the home would feel this way was enough incentive to live with the chaos of sanding and scrapping and painting and polishing.

We had hoped that almost all of home renovation works and repainting and re-polishing would have been completed by Chaitra Navaratri. But Nature had other plans.

Enters a tiny little virus on the planet earth, and soon country after country was literally shutting down. India announced a complete nation-wide lockdown for 21 days from March 24 to April 14, which has now been extended by another 19 days till May 3. The work at our place had stopped on March 21st itself as our state had already announced a lockdown. (Important aside: Starting a week before the lockdown, the workers had already been using masks for their protection, as instructed by their supervisor and the contractor who had hired them on daily basis).

Thankfully, much of the interior painting and polishing work in the home had already been done by March 21, except a few wooden doors, some portions in a couple of terraces, and a few corners which required some refinishing etc. In the process of putting back together some of the repainted and almost-completed spaces, I had already been doing some organising and decluttering, but just enough to create some sense of order – because even these completed spaces still needed some last touch-ups, not to mention some good old-fashioned deep cleaning which is absolutely essential after any major renovation work. But it was nowhere close to my vision of what I wanted for these spaces.

I was waiting for all the paint and polish work to be fully over before giving the home the much-needed final finishing touches – hanging of the curtains which play with the sunlight and create a drama during the late afternoons, finding right homes for our favourite art and objets d’art which make any living space more alive, bringing some greenery indoors which make the home feel more in harmony with the grand outdoors, and just giving that personal stamp which make a house home.  

I was looking forward to having my home renewed and refreshed, expressing a new harmony and order after the chaos of several weeks.

“The decorative arts have flourished most when the position of women was highly honoured, when woman occupied that place on the social scale which she ever ought to do. One of the most striking facts of history is that art was never so fine, never so delicate as where women were highly honoured, while there has been no good decorative work done in any age or any country where women have not occupied a high social position. It has been from the desire of women to beautify their households that decorative art has always received its impulse and encouragement. Women have natural art instincts, which men usually acquire only after long special training and study; and it may be the mission of the women in this country to revive decorative art into honest, healthy life.” (Oscar Wilde, The House Beautiful)

With the lockdown in place, and still several days of work left especially on some of the outdoor spaces, we had to decide – should we just let things stay as they are for the duration and let the home remain in somewhat of a semi-disorganised state? Or should we put everything back in place – at least as much as was possible – and then dismantle things again once the workers would be able to come back?

The courtyard adjacent to our kitchen which serves as our outdoor-indoor dining space where we spend a couple of hours every morning enjoying our tea and breakfast was in a big chaos with all the painters’ stuff lying around. No work had started there, except some basic sanding on one side of the metal grill-work. The garden was also in a big mess because that was the space the painters had been using for eating their lunches, relaxing during their breaks, washing and cleaning themselves up after the workday.

What to do?

We decided to use the lockdown time, especially the nine days of Chaitra Navaratri, to deep clean and organise as much of our home as possible, without compromising our health, since no domestic help would be available. Not satisfied with merely organising, we also decided to beautify the indoor spaces that had been painted and were almost done. This would be our way of invoking the living energy, the shakti in those spaces. Shakti that resides in beauty and harmony.

“In the physical world, of all things it is beauty that expresses best the Divine.” (The Mother, CWM, 12: 232)

We knew we would need to undo many of these spaces when the work resumes again, whenever that is possible, but we figured this way we could have something creative to do during this stay-at-home period. But more importantly, we would be spending all that stay-at-home time in the beautifully arranged spaces of our liking.

“Art galleries cannot be brought into every home, but, if all the appointments of our life and furniture of our homes are things of taste and beauty, it is inevitable that the habits, thoughts and feelings of the people should be raised, ennobled, harmonised, made more sweet and dignified.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, 1: 447).

My husband got busy with the task of organizing and cleaning up some of the outdoor spaces which the workers had left in a huge mess with all their paraphernalia. And after a few days of hard work (mostly his), we had our tea and breakfast corner almost as it was before the chaos (with a few potted plants still missing and some wind-chimes still boxed up). He also cleaned up some of the garden area, and ensured that the pots which had been moved aside and bunched up in a rather chaotic manner by the workers to make room for quick power naps during their break were now rearranged so that plants could breathe better.

I took up the indoors work, primarily the decorating part, which is my favourite! And in a few days’ time we had our home more than merely functional. It was beginning to feel refreshed and renewed.

“…you can get along very well without philosophy if you surround yourselves with beautiful things…” (Oscar Wilde, The Decorative Arts)

All the furniture still remains unpainted and unpolished, and many corners need some touch-ups or another coat of paint. I know the bookcases will have to be emptied again, various surfaces of other furniture will have to be cleared again, paintings will have to be brought down again, and so on and so forth.

But still giving the home more or less a form that feels comfortable and pleasant for us during these long lockdown days was the right thing to do, especially given the fact that the way things look at the moment, the final phase of the painting work at our house may not be starting anytime soon.

Creating order and beauty out of chaos that our home had become during the three weeks of renovation and painting felt like doing art, because making a home indeed is an artistic enterprise.

“…that beauty which is meant by art is no mere accident of human life which people can take or leave, but a positive necessity of life if we are to live as nature meant us to, that is to say unless we are content to be less than men.” (Oscar Wilde, Art and the Handicraftsman)

Not every cupboard in the home is fully organised, and there are many corners which still need some deep cleaning. The home could use some more decluttering while the garden can use some more pruning. But I am grateful for all that we have been able to accomplish during the 9 days of Navaratri, (plus a few more). This has been a labour of love, like homemaking always is.

Organising and decorating our living spaces is not about vanity or showing-off, it is not about the size of our home or the financial resources at our disposal – it is essentially about taking care of our living spaces enough to help them be at their best, for us!

It is about helping reveal the hidden beauty and harmony that these spaces are meant to express, this expression is essentially different for each one of us because we all resonate differently to the vibration of spaces around us. This is why no two homes are ever alike – even when they are exact cookie-cutter standard builder models; this is why no two homes ever feel the same – even when every piece of furniture and objet d’art used may be exactly identical.

Home, as I said before, is a living being. It lives, grows, matures, evolves, changes with those living in them. Home is indeed where the heart is, in a deeper sense. Home is also where the art is, in a real sense of art of living.

“People often talk as if there was an opposition between what is beautiful and what is useful. There is no opposition to beauty except ugliness: all things are either beautiful or ugly, and utility will be always on the side of the beautiful thing, because beautiful decoration is always on the side of the beautiful thing, because beautiful decoration is always an expression of the use you put a thing to and the value placed on it.” (Oscar Wilde, Art and the Handicraftsman)

Response? Reaction? Thought? Question? Criticism? Let me know.

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