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Abstract portrait of Author Bashabi Fraser and Artist Vibha Pankaj in conversation

In conversation with Bashabi Fraser and Vibha Pankaj: making ‘Patient Dignity’ during the pandemic

We spoke to Bashabi Fraser and Vibha Pankaj about their collaboration and process of creating ‘Patient Dignity’ published in July 2021 by Scotland Street Press as part of the 2021 International Women’s series.

Hello Bashabi and Vibha, thank you so much for being with us to share your reflections on creating Patient Dignity. It feels like a work of tended reflection that draws connections and pathways between India and Edinburgh during the COVID-19 Pandemic. When I was reading this book in many ways it felt like giving words to the transient connections we make over the internet written down in a way that elevates the day to day and the need for human connection. Bashabi, can we come to you first, what is your creative process? Where do you draw inspiration from?

The creative process for me often begins with an idea which follows me like a lingering cloud, casting shadows over my waking hours and soaking into my dreams. It can disturb me for days till one day it flashes in a lightning phrase which can come at an unguarded moment during a walk under pensive trees along a bubbling brook or jolt me awake from my deepest slumber. I have to repeat the phrase softly to myself, lest I forget the magic words. I then rush back or reach out for my notebook – depending on where I am – and let the phrase take me where it will on the page. The inspiration can come from the environment, events in the real world or another writer’s work – an ecological concern, an epiphanic moment amidst nature, a social outrage, a political upheaval, a humane deed – and sometimes it can be the quotidian, the simple things in life which we learn to value when we are threatened by the possibility of losing what we have always taken for granted. It is then that, as a poet, I feel I must be disturbed into action. Writing poetry is like a declaration of being alive, of being able to think, imagine and find a voice, a reaffirmation of the meaning of life itself through words in the rhythm of verse.

‘Writing poetry is like a declaration of being alive, of being able to think, imagine and find a voice, a reaffirmation of the meaning of life itself through words in the rhythm of verse.’

I love that idea of poetry being ‘like a declaration of being alive’ have you always felt this, when did you start writing poetry and why?

I wrote my first poems when I was a child in London. I wrote for my parents’ friend, Julian Dakin, a linguistics scholar, who brought me poetry books and we read poems together. I won the Commonwealth Scholar Prize for Poetry at seven for my badly spelt poetry and since then, poetry has been my first love. Initially it was the happy predictability of rhyming patterns that fascinated me. As time went on, I loved the games poems could play with words, the hypnotic melody of rhythms, the clever juggling of ideas, the hidden meaning behind an image which could open doors of a wonderland for the reader to enter and discover what the writer probably intended, to be discovered somewhere behind a stile or a tree or down a rabbit hole. It was an art form which I could wield like a double edged sword – sparkling, sharp and effective, but only if I had the nerve to work on it and coax it into the shape I had half dreamt of but could only achieve with time and dedication.

That is fascinating, what you describe sounds like you see a real solidity in words to be moulded and played with rather like sculpture or maybe painting, how did you come to painting Vibha? 

My love for art started in my childhood. When in primary school I recall drawing an ice-cream rickshaw cart selling orange lollies to children within the school compound. Subsequently I learnt the techniques of oil painting from a home tutor and made several landscapes in traditional style in my youth. Interestingly, two of my early pieces were based on photographs taken in Scotland while others were Indian landscapes. My parents also encouraged me to pursue music and continue to play the tabla. However, my education was in the sciences and I obtained my doctorate in the area of public health from Edinburgh University. I returned to painting after several years of work with the NHS and the voluntary sector. My current practice is a combination of memories, observation and reconstruction of the real and imagined. Saying it through paintings is now my way of expression.

You are a modern polymath Vibha, What is your creative process like? Has it changed, and where do you find yourself drawing inspiration from?

My creative process is varied – some of the paintings originate entirely from memories and feelings, some from photographs taken during walks and others through an amalgamation of imagination and observation. I grew up in India and have now lived in Scotland for twenty four years – my past and present intertwine leading to the composition. Unlike many artists, I never have the entire composition defined at the outset but enjoy letting it emerge as do my thoughts that shape my painting. In other words my process involves continuous reflection.

My inspiration comes from the interplay of light, wind and water on the natural environment in the fast changing weather. These magical displays are waiting to be narrated along with childhood stories about man’s relationship with the environment. Walks on Scottish hills reinforce my deep-rooted connection with nature – its offer of hope, comfort, freedom and unconditional friendship.

And lastly, what drew you to each other’s work and what was the process of collaboration like, Bashabi would you speak first?

I first came across Vibha’s artistic skills when I heard her playing the tabla. We both collaborated with her playing with my classical Indian dance troupe when we rehearsed and staged dance shows which I choreographed and directed. Her percussionist’s rhythms were ideal for lyrical exponents of dance. In recent years, when Vibha told me that she had picked up her paint brush again, I was fascinated by the familiar landscapes she could evoke in lines and colours on canvas. When the pandemic drove us into a lonely existence, poetry sustained me, as it enabled me to hold on to my sanity and confirmed that I was alive, that this world was pulsating and that my loved ones were still breathing and would wait for me when we had found ways to deal with this wily virus. I had seen the beautiful poetry collections Scotland Street had produced with artwork that spoke to the poems. During the year when life as we knew it came to a standstill, the Scottish parks and gardens, the woods and brooks beckoned and our walks which took us to the heart of nature in our cocooned existence, sustained us. What appealed to me in Vibha’s evocative colours was the way in which she could stay rooted in her chosen ambience while she recalled her Indian experience in a swirl or a line, under a meditative tree, across a sun-dipping rosy horizon, facing the burden of snow-laden branches or finding release in a tripping burn in spring. I asked Vibha if she could find my poems resonating with her artist’s imagination and it was a relief when she said she would love to collaborate. So I sent my poems to her and she sent back her canvas captures electronically through a year we were, able to witness with hope as we kept despair at bay through our creative communication and expression.

‘What appealed to me in Vibha’s evocative colours was the way in which she could stay rooted in her chosen ambience while she recalled her Indian experience in a swirl or a line, under a meditative tree, across a sun-dipping rosy horizon, facing the burden of snow-laden branches or finding release in a tripping burn in spring.’

That interplay of your words and Vibha’s textured paintings really comes across in the book. What are your thoughts on this question Vibha? 

I have been a fan of Bashabi’s poems which capture the depth of feelings with elegant ease. So it was my honour when she asked me to collaborate. During the pandemic when Bashabi passed on her poems to me I found that the sentiments, mostly hope and rarely despair, in the natural world of my paintings, clearly complemented Bashabi’s poems from the human world in which gloom dominated hope. Thus the collaboration demonstrates the contrasting messages of angst and worries of the human world and of radiance and joy of the natural world.

Thank you both so much. Patient Dignity was released in July 2021 as part of Scotland Street Press’s International Women’s series, and can be purchased through our shop.

contributed by

Scotland Street Press Editorial

contributed by

Scotland Street Press Editorial

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We spoke to Bashabi Fraser and Vibha Pankaj about their collaboration and process of creating ‘Patient Dignity’ published in July 2021 by Scotland Street Press as part of the 2021 International Women’s series.
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