Tuesday, February 17, 2009

About Friendship and Vibrant Gujarat Mural Project

I am one day away from the inauguration of the Vibrant Gujarat Mural Project and two days away from the ‘Ways of Seeing Road Trip’.

In Baroda it looks like summer has come early. From Jaipur I landed at Ahmedabad airport this morning. Somu Desai, who leads the Vibrant Gujarat Mural Project, had already come to receive me at the airport. He looked very excited and happy, and I could not contain my happiness as I hugged him. He looked thin after a month of rigorous work.

We were silent for sometime as we started our journey back to Baroda. It was quite unusual for us to be silent when we were together. I looked at the passing traffic and smoked a couple of cigarettes. I remembered what Chintan Upadhyay had told his friends on the previous night.

“There is a strange chemistry between three of us,” Chintan said referring to himself, Somu and me. “Whenever we meet over phone or chat or in person, we have a lot of things to discuss. I just talk about projects after projects and the next day I forget most of them. But then one fine morning I get a call from Somu, asking me when and how we go about one of those projects, which I had told him long back.”

Somu is an artist and he works very hard. Interestingly, he does not look at the art market for his money. Ever since he passed out from one of the regional fine arts colleges in Gujarat, he has been doing commissioned works for various organizations and making money for his activities. Somu likes to be in the company of artists, doing public projects, helping young talents out in finding opportunities.

It is rare to see someone like Somu in contemporary times, especially amongst the artists. Here is one guy who is always ready to take up any project without thinking twice, if the project is proposed by any of his close pals.

Recently he did a project at the Sandarbh Workshop in Partapur. He dressed himself as a driver for five days and worked as a servant to the artists who came for the workshop. May be he was underlining his life mission through this exaggerated acts of a performance piece.

I can never be Somu. But I can be thankful to him for making a few of my projects possible. Had he not been there at the helm of things, those projects would not have taken off. May be, in a given situation he would be a better organizer of art projects than others who claim to have ‘fantastic’ organizational skills.

It is second time I am writing about Somu. Once I wrote about him in Delhi Sketchbook, a column that I write in www.artconcerns.com. Then I did not want to publicly acknowledge him as I was trying to make out the real mettle of this person. So I gave him a pseudo name- Moon D. Only a few people knew who this Moon D was. Considering my request they all kept the real identity of Moon D under cover.

But many people in the art circuit were curious about this personality called Moon D. Someone called me up, some others telephoned me and some others even confronted me with the same question: Who is this guy?

To many I smiled and to some I gave vague answers. To one particular gallerist, who follows my writings very keenly, I gave a very specific answer: “Moon D is a fictitious character,” I told her.

“Oh you write fiction in the name of art criticism,” she chuckled.

“Don’t you think, art criticism in a way is pure fiction?” I countered her.

Moon D remained an enigma for sometime, but the person who gave me Moon D grew in his stature by doing commissioned works and public art projects.

Today I don’t have any problem in saying Somu’s name as he has proved his worth as an artist through his performative pieces, videos, public art projects, gallery based works and finally his magnum opus for the time being, ‘The Vibrant Gujarat Mural Project’.

I met Somu in November 2007, when I went to Partapur to be a part of the Sandarbh Art Workshop. On the first day itself we hit it out well. We shared cigarettes and a lot of ideas. Another thing that bonded us was our year of birth, 1969, about which I have some superstitious obsessions. I have written about it in one of my earlier posts.

Then we worked together for a project titled ‘New Gujarat Contemporaries’, a group show. The idea came to me when I visited Baroda in 2007, almost after twelve years since I passed out from the MS University, Baroda. Even if many Malayali artists stayed in this city, it had never any special attraction for me.

In December 2007, I was supposed to meet Somu in Baroda. But on the eve of my visit, he called me up and shared a personal tragedy with me. His brother-in-law met with an accident and died on the spot. He was shattered and so was I. I didn’t know the deceased person. But I shared the pangs of my friend. However, he insisted that I should go to Baroda and meet the artists in their studios. His car and rented house were at my disposal. With a young artist couple, Bhavin and Heena Mistry, I visited many young artists in their studios.

I found one thing in common. They were all from Gujarati speaking background and talented. However, Baroda was known for its migrant artists’ community. A thought flashed in my mind. Why these Gujarati speaking artists (many of them spoke English and Hindi too), especially the young ones, were laid back in their attitude? I wrote two articles analyzing this issue and published in artconcerns.com. These articles triggered the interest of the young Gujarati artists. Soon I mooted the idea of having a show titled, ‘The New Gujarat Contemporaries.’

Almost a month later, Somu Desai called for a meeting of Gujarati speaking artists at his residence in Baroda and gave a party with traditional Gujarati cuisine including ‘ubadia’. I addressed that meeting of thirty artists and explained my ideas regarding Gujarati contemporaries. Dilip Narayanan was with me there and he assured to mount the show in his gallery. All the artists present there agreed to participate in the show. It was something like a revival of the Gujarati pride.

An artist friend even made his dog to drink a glass of beer for the sheer happiness that he wanted to share!

Somu kept a low profile throughout but worked as my front person to meet and discuss with the artists. But within a few weeks half of the artists backed out from the project, citing the ‘theme’ of the show as a bit ‘parochial’. I was not surprised. I knew the people who worked for creating schism amongst the artists. Those people were generally against me and some of my friends.

Myself and Somu had the bitter experience of visiting an artist at her home, who first gave the full vocal support on the meeting day. When I called her over phone, she was reluctant to speak. Then she told me innumerable reasons to avoid the meeting with us. We somehow convinced her and reached her home. She received us with some kind of impatience and told us point blank that she was not a part of the project anymore. It was surprising for us because we thought that she would be beyond influences.

Somu and me faced artists who after delivering the works at his residence taking it back in the next hour without any logical explanation. The opposition was so strong and they wanted to destroy us. But we stood through the trying times. And finally we did the show with fifteen artists in OED Gallery, Kochi. The show was a moderate success.

I pay my respect to Somu at this juncture because he stood with me like a rock. All of a sudden he became an alien in Baroda. His friends started looking away and he decided to leave Baroda for good.

But now, standing in front of the finished mural project, I feel so proud of Somu. It was Somu again who saw me through this project.

On 2nd January I came to Baroda to visit Asit Shah to do a documentary, the first documentary in my life, on senior artist Jeram Patel. In between the shooting, we were discussing how the huge factory space could be utilized when there was no work happening. I immediately suggested why we could not make it a huge mural in the line of Mexican Murals.

I opened the internet and showed the Mexican Mural images to Asit. Somu was there with me assisting me in the production of the documentary. It was at the same time the Vibrant Gujarat of Narendra Modi was being held in Gujarat.

“Let me re-conceptualize the Vibrant Gujarat theme as a visual project,’ I said to Asit. “Why can’t we change the whole space into a mural that narrates the story of Gujarat in contemporary visual terms?”

“I don’t take a single rupee to do this,” I added.

“I will take the responsibility of executing it and I also don’t want any money,” Somu added.

“I don’t expect a profit from this,” said Asit Shah.

Within the span of thirty minutes, we finalized the project. Somu asked for two weeks to finish the project, which I found too small a time to finish such a mammoth scale work. But I did not have any reason to doubt Somu’s abilities as an artist and as an organizer.

We all worked as per the curatorial points discussed. We delivered what we were supposed to do as per deadlines. The artists worked well and within a time frame of twenty days they finished the mural.

Today I am standing in front of the mural. I feel so humble. I conceptualized it. The whole thing is my idea. But I want to dedicate all the credit to Somu Desai, who followed my curatorial directions with dedication and added a lot to it with an enthusiasm and verve that only I could find in Somu.

“JohnyML has vested interests in Gujarat. He is a right wing person.” The accusations are still there.

But I ask all those critics to come and see the project. It is fabulous. It tells you again, ‘nothing is impossible’.

I can say today that I made it possible because Somu was and is with me.

I am not a Gujarati. I don’t have any vested interests here. But again and again I feel that I can do a lot of things in Gujarat provided Somu like artists are with me.

My salutes to my great friend. New Gujarat Mural Project belongs to him. I am just a reason for it.

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