Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Meeting an Artist at Dilli Haat on a Hot Humid Afternoon

I get a call from Santhosh Babu, a friend, hypnotist and personal management trainer.

“Johny, Silpi Rajan is here in Delhi. He would like to meet you as he is having a show in Dilli Haat,” he says.

“I am in Mumbai,” I said, “I would definitely meet him once I am back in Delhi.”

After two days I am back in Delhi and I get a call. The number does not look familiar. I pick up the call even if it is the first half of the day, when I generally don’t pick up calls, fearing that the caller would give me some unpalatable message. It has become almost a superstition. I avoid taking calls even from my closest friends like Dilip Narayanan, Chintan Upadhyay, Manjunath Kamath, Somu Desai and so on.

“I am Silpi Rajan,” the caller says. I am just reminded of the talk between me and Santhosh Babu.

“Yes, Rajan, I know you are having a show at the Dilli Haat,” I said.

“Yes,” Rajan’s voice sounds happy. “The show is getting over on Monday, 6th October. Please do drop in. I want to meet you,” he says.

I assure him that I would go and meet him the next day.

Generally speaking, I hate to go and see shows because many of the shows do not offer me any kind of a ‘high’. I expect the shows to make me high, a permanent state of intoxication. I live in a perpetual high gained through reading, seeing good works of art and conversations with friends. I am a reluctant talker. But I can chat for hours with my friends, if it is online.

Hence, I force myself to get out of my studio/office in Chittaranjan Park and I head towards Dilli Haat under the hazy clouds that make Delhi a veritable hell. It is the advent of October, however the climate has not changed much. Few years back, things were different in Delhi. End of September heralded the change of climate. October saw the onset of winters. Now, accuse global warming for this climate change, Octobers are still hot and humid. I remember my favorite writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez whose characters lie in hammock in humid atmosphere, with an army of mosquitoes for company. In Delhi we don’t have hammocks. But wherever we sit, it is a hammock. We are in a permanent hanging state, under humid weather, with of course, mosquitoes for company.

I buy a ticket at the counter. It is Rs.15 for an adult and Rs.5 for a child. The recurring incidents of bomb blasts have hampered the spirit of the people. There are not many visitors. I go inside through the security gate. They just let me go. No frisking, no groping. There must be CCTV cameras around. If I am a potential terrorist, I am watched and my images are registered. Like any other Delhi citizen, I too am conscious of my public presence. I know by now that I am under continuous surveillance.

There is a banner with ‘Shilpotsava’ (The Festival of Sculptures) written on it. But I don’t see any sculptures around. The usual stalls with ethnic stuff spread around there and the poor village craftsmen wait for clients, anxiously. That is what makes my spirits down. The class and locational distinctions are well marked there. They are poor craftsmen. You are a rich city dweller. You are here to patronize them. I hate the situation. I hate the situation, in which I am forced to eat dinner while the village folks in their festive best sing songs to entertain you.

“Where shall I find sculptor Rajan,” I ask someone who looked like a government official in his lousy stereotyped clothes.

“No, idea,” he says and the boredom is largely written on his face. I just move away from there, suppressing the seething anger in me.

Suddenly, from one of the stalls, I hear a familiar language, Malayalam. I turn back and see a small dark man with a long grey beard speaking into his mobile phone. That is Rajan, I can tell you for sure, even if I am seeing him for the first time.

But then, it is not an exhibition that I see. It is a stall, where his sculptures are just kept on a small wooden table covered with a piece of white cloth.

“Hi Rajan,” I greet him.

He takes a moment before responding to my greeting with a smile. He is unsure of my identity.

“I am JohnyML,” I tell him vehemently to take him out of his confusion. I don’t know whether he expected me to be a different person. With my blue jeans and black T-shirt I don’t look like an art critic from anywhere.

Rajan holds my hand. I could feel the strength of that diminutive man. The hands, which have chipped a lot of wooden flakes and revealed a lot of sculptures. The hands that have taken life from its rawness and moulded into shapes. The hands that have seen utter poverty and utter disillusionment. The hands that have seen the appreciation of patrons and friends. The hands that smell and feel of life.

Rajan shows me his sculptures. The biggest sculpture here is maximum one and half feet tall and half a foot in width. Most of them are made in wood. And a few are done in clay. They all look like traditional and tribal sculptures reminding anyone of the totem poles and votive figures. There is a raw energy in the chiseled marks that define the contours. They are the figures of earth. They express the black man’s power and his feeling to be with the earth. They emanate a raw closeness to nature. They are the expressions of the primordial prayers of a natural human being

The sculptures are displayed in a five feet by two feet table. I remember the Sakshi Gallery Show of Ghesuram and Rajkumar from Bastar region. Their works also come from the same mindset and aesthetic attitude. Rajan has not got a chance to exhibit in big cities though his sculptures have been exhibited in some south Indian cities. Had he been found out by some gallery a few years back, he would have got a chance to work more.

Rajan is a school drop out. He dropped out when he was in seventh standard. Life was the reason for him to become a drop out. He became an automobile workshop mechanic. But somewhere in him, an artist remained dormant for years. And slowly he started working on available wood. A friend of him gave him a set of chiseling tools and that was the beginning of his artistic career sometime in 1980s. He worked in wood, in clay and in cement. These media that glorified poverty and struggle as the main features of artistic excellence, wrote so many things about his works. Poets wrote many words saying that he was the embodiment of black power. Some film actors collected his works, obviously to give an ethnic touch to their designed homes. He got some commissions to do public sculptures. But life was not easy for him.

In the front courtyard of his small home at Trissur, Kerala, there is an unfinished shed and a few rusting machineries. And this dilapidated shed has got something to do with the present show that I am seeing at Dilli Haat.

“I had taken a loan from the Kerala State Schedule Caste Finance and Development Corporation (KSFDC). It was for establishing a small scale industrial unit to produce wood works for interior decoration. Somehow, it did not work out as I could not find skilled people to work with me,” says Rajan.

The rest of the story sounds familiar and strange at the same time. Rajan could not pay back the loan amount. Several times the KSFDC people sent him notices. He was not finding means to meet the ends. Paying back the loan was the last thing one could do in that situation. Finally he got a Revenue Recovery notice from the department. He should pay back. If not, his property will be attached to the department. Then the Corporation made a proposal to him. In Delhi, there will be a Shilpostav and he could participate in it. If he could collect some money from sales, that could be used for paying back the debt.

‘That’s why I am here,” Rajan says.

I feel some kind of angst in me. I am working in a field where crores of Rupees are transacted on a day to day basis in the name of art. Speculations and stakes are high in this field. Artists have forgotten the small denominations of currency. And here is this artist, exhibiting his works along with tribal craftsmen, only to try out his luck; getting some money to pay back his loan.

“How do you price your works,” I ask him.

“Five thousand to eight thousand,” Rajan says with some kind of doubt. “In galleries, may be the prices could be high,” he adds.

I notice the banner in front his stall. The banner shows that the show is done on the aegis of the KSFDC. I feel like just tearing that banner and throwing it into the dust bin.

“Can I get the images of your works from internet,” I ask Rajan.

“No,” he says and he offers me a CD, which has all the images.

I realize that there is only one CD with him. If I take that he may not have another one to show if someone is interested. “Send me a copy of it once you get back home,” I tell him while writing down my address in his diary.

I mean it. I want to show his works to the galleries. I am sure most of them would not like to have it. But Rajan’s works need to be appreciated in a context, which functions within the contemporary art context. I am sure I will do it.

It is time for me to go. I say good bye.

“Five years back I had booked Jehangir Art Gallery. I have paid Rs.24000/- for it. Now I got the invitation from them. My show would take place in Mumbai in November 2009. Please do come,” he extends me an advance invitation.

Five years of waiting. That is quite something. And Twenty Four Thousand Rupees. That is too much for him. That is perseverance, I say in my mind.

Kerala has given him a name, ‘Silpi Rajan’ (Sculptor Rajan)- a title he carries with a lot of pride.

Did this title ever help him in his life? I wonder. May be, his nights are peaceful because he goes to bed with this feeling that he is a ‘sculptor’ and people know him as a sculptor.

How many of us in the contemporary art scene have got peaceful sleep these days? I ask myself while a sleepless night spreads before me like a guttural road in Delhi.

(The illustration is not Rajan’s sculpture)


മാ ര്‍ ... ജാ ര ന്‍ said...

read your writing,it is pious.

Kapil Chopra said...

Dear Johny,

We have launched a all profit for arts initiative, means that no money will be taken out for any other purpose except being invested back into art infrastructure. Peter curated the first show, Swapan Seth curates the second one and I will chip in with the third. Please read all about us at We have helped artists who are running tea stalls in Aizwal to people who are yet to be discovered with this. Trying to increase the collector base in the country and we have sold over 40 works now in 2 months.

Please tell people like him and other to load their works onto I am sure collectors will notice and buy which will help him do more.