So long, Thin White Duke: David Bowie taught me 'strange' is good

A Mumbai street artist and Bowie worshipper remembers her lifelong muse

David Bowie has been my muse since I was six. While our idols evolve as we grow, mine stayed the same. I always like to say I chose the right person to tap for inspiration from the get-go. My sister and I first discovered him in Toronto as young kids through teenage cousins as Ziggy Stardust. His hair and costumes were intriguing to an art-inclined child. As I grew older, my appreciation for him grew deeper in meaning. His life and career provided endless hours of discovery. Today, some 30 years later, I still am studying him, although I must admit, I re-visit stories and interviews of him that I already know word for word because I want to relive those moments of awe.

The writer sports a hairstyle inspired by David Bowie
The writer sports a hairstyle inspired by David Bowie

I had to become an adult before I could truly understand the level of sophistication he was working on. He was provocative, prolific and entrepreneurial. Everything he did was conceptual, tying his albums with theatrical concerts and costumes, creating characters with a backstory. He taught me that ‘strange’ is good. I could be as strange in art and thought as I wanted if I stayed creative and smart.

Street art, also inspired by Bowie. Pic/Peter De Mulder
Street art, also inspired by Bowie. Pic/Peter De Mulder

My love for him was never in silence. For most friends in school and college, Jas was synonymous with Bowie. From my daily timeline on Facebook, it’s apparent this hasn’t changed. Today, my WhatsApp trail and email inboxes are flooded with condolences, first starting with the question, have you heard? It was my good friend, Shruti Haasan, who called to break the news after she came across it on Hollywood Reporter. I got off the phone and checked the Official Bowie page on Facebook.

And then, I had a long cathartic cry, my teeth chattering uncontrollably even minutes after the last tear dropped.

My deep love for him and his work has been unapologetic. I’ve been told often that I’ve converted people into Bowie fans simply by posting what I do on Facebook. If I had Bowie’s time management skills, I would’ve held a weekend course on his career and run a blog dedicated to his career. It’s never too late, as Bowie had showed us with a new album releasing on his 69th birthday (January 8) and a play that premiered in New York last month.

My art studio was called Life on Mars, a name borrowed from Bowie’s song, Life on Mars? It was a perfect name because it brought together two of my passions — Bowie and world issues. The song is about a little girl who is wondering if there’s life on Mars because she doesn’t like what’s going on on Earth. All the characters I’ve painted on the street are either angry or deep in thought. I mentioned on my Facebook fan page that I’m often asked why my characters never smile. They’ll smile when the world gets its act together.

I was once asked by Rodrigo Davies of GQ India if I would be up for something Bowie-related to coincide with a six-page spread planned for their January 2011 issue. I had one month to do something, so I committed to a Bowie-inspired solo art show. With no artwork on hand to show, I was starting from scratch. I pondered for two weeks, wondering, “How many Bowie fans are there in Bombay? How do I sell out this show?” I decided to create pieces about his songs and educate the viewer with a piece of information or history on a song inspiring my artwork. For Space Oddity, I created a planet made of pills and a space ship made of a capsule. Someone working at a pharmaceutical company purchased the second edition of it. The original edition at the show was sold to a neurosurgeon, who is also a Bowie fan and close friend.

When the highly successful Bowie Is exhibit was held in London in 2013, I came to realise how many people were happy to support my “obsession”. They walked out of that exhibit in full agreement that my muse was a genius. I received endless merchandise from people who attended the exhibit. Various gifts of all price points came from seven different countries. One of my favourite surprises was from a girl who worked at hotel in Ibiza that my husband and I had stayed at during a trip in 2009. She sent me a message out of nowhere four years later saying, “I’ve come across something with your name on it.” I like surprises so I gave her my address and didn’t bother to ask what it was. Two weeks later, I received a heavy package. It was a 2-pound magazine from a famous club called Blue Marlin featuring the Bowie exhibit.

I contacted the V&A in London once I heard that the Bowie Is exhibit would be going on a world tour. Victoria Broackes, co-curator of the show and Head of Exhibitions at the V&A, told me politely that India wouldn’t be considered.

I had my heart set on Bandra’s Mehboob Studio as a venue since Anish Kapoor had had his show there, and wanted to ask Shruti’s mother Sarika to help me with this project since she is also a Bowie fan. But I knew that the chances of V&A saying yes to Mumbai were slim.

Today is a great loss for all Bowie fans but what he left us will live on forever. It’ll only truly hit me tomorrow that Bowie is no longer physically here. I’m grateful I got to see him perform live a few times.

As I was coming to the end of writing this piece, a friend shared this status with me: “If you’re ever sad, just remember the world is 4.543 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.”

The writer is a Mumbai-based street artist and muralist, and co-founder of Kulture Shop, a platform for emerging and established graphic artists

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