Maura Moynihan seems a person on a mission to try out every art form there is. She is a painter, writer, poet, standup comic, screenwriter, singer and songwriter. She has worked with Andy Warhol, spent time with celebrities like The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, The Who and Jane Fonda. She has also worked in slums in India. She recently came to Nepal to exhibit her paintings.
In a long conversation, she told Kapil Bisht about how she wound up in the artistic sphere and managed to do the things she has done, about her love affair with Asia, and why she feels at home in Nepal.
When did you first come to Nepal?
I was very lucky. My father was named the US Ambassador to India when I was fifteen. When we arrived in India and I got off the plane, I felt I had come home. Because Delhi gets very hot in summer, we came to Kathmandu in June 1973. Kathmandu in those days was indescribably, blindingly beautiful. Yes, it has changed. So have Delhi and Bangkok and New York. But I still see the old Nepal when I walk around Kathmandu, because the culture here is so strong and old. It is one of the most remarkable civilisations in the world. It is a link to the old Vedic civilisation of India. It has elements of Tibetan Buddhism. And now there is an international community that has been here since the ‘60s.
The story “Masterji” in your short-story collection Yoga Hotel has a character called Sam, who can’t find a place for herself in America and only wants to live in India. You have admitted that Sam resembles you a lot. Have you struggled to find a place for yourself in America? What is it about India that feels like home?
I have had three great loves in life: India, Nepal and Thailand. And I have been so fortunate that my love affairs have been with countries and not people. You feel like you’re breaking up at the airport, but we always get back together when I come back.
Discovering Buddhism at an early age saved my life. That is what brought me to Nepal. And still does. I had visited Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh and travelled extensively in Asia by the time I graduated high school. The first thing that hit me when I got off the plane in the States was: I can’t live here! This country is totally insane. They don’t worship the cow; they worship the hamburger. They don’t have the Mahabharata or Ramayana; they have Star Wars. I was like, get me back to a real civilisation!
America has a lot to offer to many people. I have many friends from Asia who have gone there and gotten excellent educations, but I always feel more at home in a Hindu or Buddhist world. It could be something from my past life. Also, I love the arts, culture, philosophy, the mythology and the rituals. And I never, ever get bored in Asia. How could you get bored in Nepal? It’s not possible. Every day there is a sacred function taking place in the Valley.
Nepalis have a very strong sense of identity and very strong cultural and family ties. That is something we lack in the West. The post-industrial society has sadly led to the collapse of the family structure.
You have said that “Asia will make you confront yourself.” What aspect of yourself have you encountered by being in Asia?
The very first thing you confront if you come from the First World is poverty. And you can’t ignore it. My parents were liberal, progressive and great humanitarians. They had friends working in the slums in Delhi. I volunteered with them in slums in different parts of Delhi. It was a truly humbling and awakening experience.
Americans can’t live without air conditioning; Asians can live without electricity. Nobody wants to be poor – who would? – but the poor are so hardworking and determined to improve their lives. One of the great things I’ve learned from Buddhism is the practice of rejoicing for whatever you have, and defeating greed. Nobody has everything. We might have better technology and infrastructure in the West, but how is the culture here, the oldest continuously functioning civilisation in the world? There is a reason: it’s a very high philosophy. They have taken non-violence farther and farther. The other thing you learn in Asia, because things don’t happen on time, is patience.
So Asia makes you think about the other person as opposed to being individualistic?
Yes, it should—unless you live in your expat bubble. What I love about Kathmandu is its expat scene. Someone once said that a capital city is not a true capital unless it has interesting expats. The expats of Kathmandu are the most interesting that I have ever found. This is because you have to integrate here. You are not going to have fun or get to the rasha, the richness, of the culture if you don’t immerse yourself.
You probably have expat friends around the world. What sets the Kathmandu expats apart from, say, those of Tokyo?
Here you can’t live in an expat bubble as easily. The expats here are very creative, multilingual, students of Hinduism and Buddhism, artistic and eccentric.
You are, according to a New York Sun article, a painter; writer; beauty; poet; single mother; speaker of Tibetan, Hindi, and Urdu; standup comic; charmer; screenwriter; Democratic fund-raiser; lifelong yoga practitioner; muse of the pop artist Andy Warhol’s; ballet lover; hostess; enthusiastic disco dancer; rabble-rouser. How come you have a foot in so many worlds?
Living in India and Nepal and having Andy Warhol as my mentor influenced that. In the West, there is a lot of focus on specialisation. When I came to Asia I found people do it all. I met doctors who could play the sitar and translate Sanskrit poem. Andy Warhol did it all. He was an artist, publisher, produced and directed movies. He encouraged me with my musical career and my writing. He told me to try and do it all. Why not?
Sometimes you don’t know what your path is going to be. I had no idea I would work for Andy Warhol. I had a little band. He came to see us play. Then he put me on the cover of Interview and asked me to work for him. It was kismat [destiny], big time!
The reason I want to focus on my art now is because I’ve been working on it constantly throughout my life, but never exhibited because I was raising my son and getting my masters degree. But I never stopped painting because for me it’s a form of meditation. I am a bad meditator but I can sit and paint. When I was in America, yearning to be in Nepal, in Swoyambhunath and Pashupatinath, I would paint. Painting was a refuge for me. Also, I didn’t want to lose my skills. Everything takes work—being a musician, painter, writer. You have to practice.
Were you just trying out new things and pushing your own boundaries or it was because you didn’t like being tied down to one profession?
No. My father was a great humanitarian. He taught his children that it was their duty and responsibility to give back to people no matter what you did, whether you were an artist or a dentist. You have to. If you are going to get into charity or social service, you have to do it right. You can’t just throw money at a problem; you have to get involved. You have to get to know the people. I especially love working with young people. They are so bright! I helped some young Nepalis who are now in their forties. They have gone on to do great things. I enjoy that kind of work. I don’t consider it charity. I’ve learned from everyone I have “helped.” Actually, they helped me. Like I say in one of my songs, “Baby I am the refugee/ You gotta rescue me.”
I had the talents and I felt I had to develop them. That was all. I wasn’t flitting from one thing to another. It is hard work to be an artist. You have to cut out time for your skills or they deteriorate. I have always tried to keep my skills up and changed my style.
As a writer, artist or even a volunteer, there is always only a certain depth you can hit when studying or trying to know a foreign place. At the end of the day, you are an outsider. Is this something that gets to you or do you accept it as something that is unavoidable?
That doesn’t bother me. I don’t care about that. When I’m here I’m always tingling with joy. I’d like to go further. I never tire. I never stop learning. I can never get enough of learning about Nepali culture and Asian civilisation. It’s so deep and rich. I can keep trying. The longer I stay here, the deeper I can go. I never saved any money, because any time I had a bit of money I immediately bought a plane ticket to Asia.
You have moved in circles – Hollywood and refugee camps, pop culture and advocacy – that are worlds apart. Even your books bring together characters from opposite ends of the spectrum. Is there a place where these worlds merge, or should meet? Is there a deeper message in this disparity?
Everyone – rich, poor, fat, thin – wants happiness or escape from suffering. As Lord Buddha said, “The cause of death is birth.” So we are all living in fear and anxiety about survival. What I learned from people is that the rich Hollywood star is filled with fear and anxiety just like the poor chaiwallah. They both want love. They both want acceptance. Some people have more resources than others. As the Buddhist saying goes, at the foot of the rich man sleeps the content beggar. That doesn’t mean it’s good to be poor; it just means happiness is determined by your mind. Ultimately, everyone is in the same boat. We are all in this samsara.
How did you get into writing?
As a child. It was my favourite subject in school. By the time I was five, I wanted to be a famous poet. Of course, coming from an Irish family, that was the most exalted of statuses. To be a poet was the highest thing you could be. There was nothing more important than being a poet. I had the ambition and the desire to be a writer. After I met Andy Warhol I began writing for Interview. I was also writing fiction and comedy and screenplays. I sold a screenplay to Oliver Stone.
You credit Andy Warhol for turning you toward the arts. Tell us about his influence on you.
No, I was already a pretty good artist when I met Andy. I was very fortunate that I was one of the last generations of Americans who went to college while a liberal arts education was in vogue. That changed in the ‘80s, when the emphasis moved to business school. So I studied Latin, French, art, drama and history. That partly explains the choices I have made in my life: they were based on my educational background.
Andy Warhol encouraged me and was a role model for me on how to do it. And he did it his way! I was already an artist and he encouraged my talents. That meant a lot to me. I was young and fragile. New York is a tough, rough city. If I hadn’t met Andy my life wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting and I wouldn’t still be an artist today. He had an eye for talent but he was also a tough critic. If he didn’t like something, he’d tell you. He wouldn’t flatter you. He was generous and kind. I learned that from him.
You said you were an artist before you met Warhol. So how did you get into painting in the first place?
My mother is a wonderful artist. My brothers were both gifted artists. I grew up painting. That is what we did on weekends for fun, as a family. So I grew up in a family of artists.
You have painted many portraits of King Birendra. Why this fascination with King Birendra? Simply coincidence – you were in Nepal when he was king – or something else?
I spent a year in Thailand, the year of mourning for King Bhumibol. I loved and admired him. I always wanted to live in Thailand. Somehow, I ended up living there that year. I went to many art exhibitions about him. He himself was a good painter and musician. I did my own exhibition on him, for which I did portraiture, something I hadn’t done before. I sold a lot of those portraits. Seetashma Thapa, who owns this gallery [Kathmandu Art], asked me to do portraits of King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya. This is part of Nepali history. Now I’d like to do Jung Bahadur and Rana queens and princesses.
You have said that you have great admiration for the people of Nepal. Why?
Every Nepali is an artist. That is why I feel at home here. Look at the way the women dress! They are number one on my best-dressed list.
Each time you visit Kathmandu, you go to Boudha, Pashupatinath and Swoyambhunath. Apart from the religious, historical and cultural importance of these places, what makes them special? Why do they endure?
They are the three holy tirthas [pilgrimage sites] of the Kathmandu Valley. They are places of shakti [power] and because there I have touched the heart of the Valley. Every time I land in Kathmandu, I feel like I’m in that Hindi song “Madhosh hoon mein har waqt waqt” [I’m spellbound all the time]. I feel that the magic is still alive in these places. The spiritual technologies of ancient times are still functioning there.
You have said that when you came to Kathmandu for the first time, it struck you “like a thunderbolt.” Perhaps people’s first impression of Kathmandu is still like a jolt of lightening today, albeit for very different reasons—pollution, overcrowding, maddening traffic. Do you feel something of that old magic still remains in the Valley? If so, where?
That old magic is still here. That is why I am here. Let’s go to Boudha, we’ll find it. Come with me to Pashupati and we’ll find it there. Of course I miss the old Nepal. Who doesn’t? Nepali culture has survived longer than most civilisations. But I never lose faith in Nepal, because the artists, priests and lay people sustain it. People here are very beautiful and kind. That is what Nepalis are known for. Nepal is definitely entering a new age. When I first came here it was like a fifteen-century Hindu kingdom. It was incredibly beautiful, but it wasn’t something that could sustain itself in the twenty-first century. But look how quickly Nepalis have adapted! Nepal, in my opinion, is on an upward trajectory right now.