There are two figures on that page, separated by white space. Both are identical figures, flower shaped, but the one on top is bound by a circle and the bottom one is inside a comma. It is a semi colon, perhaps the most beautiful semicolon one could imagine. That's because the flowers are drawn using mandala art, identified as a tool for meditation. The artist Elsa Maria is a Malayali, living in Australia, who found a lot of peace for herself from the screaming television and the gloom of the pandemic after stumbling upon this art form.
“Simply put, this art form is filling out a circular outline symmetrically with many different simple, repetitive, geometrical patterns. It is a very calming exercise because you draw the patterns over and over again, very slowly. I have found that it keeps my breath slow and steady and it is almost equivalent to meditation. The practice of drawing mandalas has scientifically proven to reduce stress and anxiety in PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) patients. It’s a very spiritual, ancient art form that is still practiced by Tibetan monks,” explains Elsa Maria, who flew from Thrissur to Sydney one-and-a-half years ago, with her family of three.
She has put out her mandala works on Instagram and instantly gained hundreds of followers.
Elsa hadn’t known mandala art until six months ago. She was not even one who drew or doodled as a child. She was that student who got her friends to draw diagrams in her school records. When she had to draw something, she drew like children do, a house and a tree and the sun circled by two birds. “And clouds,” she stresses, “definitely clouds.”
So it was a surprise for everyone who knew her when she began sketching mandalas almost obsessively. It began, like many things, with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the news that her husband played 24X7 and the ‘too many’ questions her child had to ask.
“The news channels continuously delivered distressing news along with ominous, tense, anxiety-inducing music in the background. I wish news channels would be more sensitive and considerate of their stressed audience and tone down their suspenseful music to NOT sensory overload them, especially when we have disasters at hand like we do now,” she says.
Elsa realised she had to do something to keep herself calm. She had heard about the healing and calming effects of mandalas and how they are used in art therapy, and she began searching for YouTube tutorials about them. The effect was immediate.
“I could zone out and shift my concentration from the disturbing news, triggering music and I could answer almost twice as many questions!” Elsa says.
The Instagram page soon followed and she duly got tips from fellow artists of the mandala community on the papers, pens, pencils and erasers to use. She took an online course and studied the basics. Now mandala has become something she does nearly every day.
“Something that I started to keep myself from getting anxious has now become an integral part of my life. It became even more fulfilling for me when I found out that I could use this ancient art form to not only practise mindfulness but also to retell the most amazing stories from the books/movies I enjoyed or to spread awareness about some important topics. Now, I use my social media platform and mandalas to draw and write about the things that should be discussed more but aren't.”
That’s how the semicolon work came out.
Introducing the Project Semicolon that the late Amy Bleul had started to help those struggling with mental illness, Elsa writes on her Instagram, "But why a semicolon? Because a semicolon is used when an author could've chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. It represented hope."
The project asked people to draw semicolons on their wrists if they felt suicidal or have anxiety issues and so on. Tens of thousands tattooed semicolons on their wrists either because they have mental health issues or else to show that they stand in solidarity with those who do. The project, Elsa writes, started conversations and brought awareness and a sense of community. "So when you see someone with a semicolon tattoo on their wrist, be a lot more kinder than you have to :)," she writes.
Elsa says in the interview, “I drew semicolon mandala after hearing about actor Sushant Singh's untimely death, to spread awareness about ‘Project Semicolon’, an organisation that deals with anxiety, depression and suicide prevention. I also wanted to point to the direction of lists of therapists and mental health practitioners in Kerala and in India, if anyone needed them for themselves or for their loved ones. Many people opened up about their struggles with mental health over DMs (Direct Messages) and comments after I drew that.”
Recently, she drew a burning mandala after the alleged rape and murder of a Dalit woman in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras. The drawing was a channel for expressing her emotions. “It let me vent, mourn and express my anger, frustration and distress. And in doing so, other women responded too – we had many, many conversations ranging from sex education to casteism to moral policing to rape culture,” Elsa says.
Her art addressed more topics that affected her – sometimes the memory of something toxic that someone once said to her or to another person, other times current social and mental issues. “Some topics that I’ve touched are suicide awareness, differences between sex and gender, imposter syndrome, colourism, toxic positivity and our unhealthy relationship with the English language. The best thing about drawing and writing about these issues is to observe how well people connect. People relate it to their own experiences and respond, and there are almost always healthy discussions in the comment section,” Elsa says.
Some people DM her when they do not wish to comment about their experience in public.
“I know that change doesn’t need to start from a big place, it could even start from something as simple as a calming, geometric mandala and a discussion around it. I hope that these artworks and corresponding online discussions slowly seep into our dinner table conversations and at some point, change the way we perceive things,” she says.