Monday, March 2, 2009
Pandiram Mandavi-The King of Narainpur
Ever since we arrived Kumbharpara in Kondegaon, Bastar, Somu was telling us about an exciting meeting that was in the offing. He told us about Pandi Ram Mandavi, a sculptor from this region who had travelled all over the world to showcase his works. I had heard his name somewhere but had not given that much attention. When Somu said about him, I became very curious about this artist, who according to Somu, ‘is a man who looks like an Italian with blue eyes, light complexioned and with an attitude.’
So we set out to meet him. He stays at Naraianpur, forty two kilometres away from Kumbharpara. We are sceptical about gong to Narainpur as this region is famous for the Naxalite presence. The road that goes through a mono plantation forest is said to be infested with Naxal activities. We ask Bhupesh Tiwari of Saathi Samaj Sevi Santha about Narainpur and Pandiram. He tells us that now Narainpur is an independent district and there are full of police and army presence. One can go to Narainpur to meet Pandi Ram but on one condition; we should come back before sunset.
We get Suresh Verma, brother of Shiv Verma, an accomplished young artist from the Bastar region who currently works from Baroda, to accompany us. We drive towards Narainpur. Everything seems to be picture perfect; sylvan atmosphere with thick forests lining either sides of the road. Palak Raval, a young artist from Mumbai who has just arrived to spend one month in Bastar is with us in our car. The stereo plays a song of my liking from the famous bollywood movie, Sinngh is King.
We reach Narainpur around four in the evening and Pandi Ram’s studio is near a primary school ground. Somu had already warned us about the attitude of the artist. He had told us something like this: “Pandi Ram does not like photographers. He does not want to be photographed in his studio.” This had given us very strong picture about this artist. However, when we reach nobody is there at his studio, which I should say that no better than a usual shed that we seen in the Bastar region. There are three life size wooden sculptures depicting three female figures. Outside his studio there are couple of half finished wooden sculptures that show a complicate ensemble of man and animal figures.
I am surprised to see a Bamboo crafts centre poster at Pandi Ram’s studio wall. I have not seen the artist yet and I cannot say anything about him. All I know about him is that he looks like an Italian man with blue eyes and he does not want to be photographed in his studio.
Pandi Ram’s son is there at his studio. He informs us that his father is at home, which is a kilometre away from the studio. We ask him to accompany us and he comes along. He makes a call in his mobile and informs his father that we are on our way. Inside the car I am not able to concentrate on the music coming out of the stereo. I start chipping my mind with the tools of imagination so that I could carve out a figure of the artist whom I am going to meet in a few minutes’ time.
Somu stops the car in the middle of a village road, which is covered with full of red dust. A man with a small towel for a turban and a lungi for his waist cloth stand there grinning. His upper body is bare and he has a light complexion but obviously not Italian looks. I ask my friend whether it was the artist. He nods his head and says ‘yes’. I think Somu has exaggerated the facts. This man does not look from anywhere like an Italian man. His eyes are light but obviously not blue. His has a light complexion but he does not look like a white man. May be he looks like a mulatto, a mixture of white and black where white dominates the black complexion. He greets us with the same grin on his face. He knows Somu well and he shakes hands with us.
The fear I had for him now melts away. I feel the amicable presence of a simple village man with a smile. He leads us to his home. He is jovial in nature and has a lot of stories to tell. He does not boast off about his artistic talents but he looks like quite stately. There is something royal about his. Even in his simplest of clothes, he has a special personality.
I start talking to him in English and soon find out that he is more comfortable with Hindi. Then I switch over to Hindi. He talks about his last visit to Kerala for a Lalit Kala Akademy camp. He talks about Satyapal, who is currently the secretary of Kerala Lalit Kala Akademy. Satyapal was in Bastar for seventeen months and most of the artists and artisans know him personally.
Huge tamarind trees listen to our talk. Pigs move around. Dogs sniff along with us. Buffaloes look at us with some kind of curiosity. Village folks do not show any surprise in seeing us. But we are surprised to see the concrete paths laid along. We ask him about the concrete pathway, which looks out of place in the village setting.
“One day a famous official came to visit me. This road was kutcha and was full of mud. He came from the other side and climbed on the rocks to reach my home. But I insisted that he should go back through the mud path. His clothes were dipped in mud and within a month he ordered to have a concrete path here,” Pandi Ram recounts the story behind the concrete path.
While walking with us, he calls out to a man working in the brick field and the man runs away from there as if he had received a command from a king. We don’t understand what exactly has conspired between two of them.
We reach Pandi Ram’s house, which has several rooms in a row. There is a dog chained to a tree. Somu asks why the dog is chained while all the other animals and birds move around freely.
“Whenever a hen is caught and eaten by some other animal, the folks blame that my dog has done it. So I decided to keep him in chain. Now nobody complaints though their hens are regularly eaten by other animals,” says Pandi Ram with a grin.
Pandi Ram Mandavi, that is his full name, is a Muriya wood carver and he became famous during 1990s as he was taken up by the cultural impresarios and taken around all over the world. He was invited to each and every exhibition conducted by the government cultural departments. He travelled all over India and abroad along with his works and became pretty much rich in due course of time.
But today Pandi Ram looks like living in penury. May be, you have an urban eye. He does not think that he has lost everything due to government apathy or his wayward lifestyle. Whenever he got money, he lived like a king. He threw great parties for the villager folks at his home and in the gotul, village community halls. He spent his money in travelling along with his friends. And he married several times. Each room in his house has a wife living there, looking after his needs.
“There is a belief amongst the tribal people that they should not accumulate wealth or possessions. If they do, they turn greedy and it would create discordance amongst people.” That is the motto of the people and that is why Pandi Ram does not accumulate wealth. And we feel that he lives in penury.
Yes, these days he is finding difficult to meet his ends. He works in his farm and whenever he gets time he does his sculptures. He is an accomplished wood carver who learnt his techniques from his artisan father. He carves images from the simple life of the unassuming village folks. He makes relief sculptures in wooden panels and also does free standing sculptures.
“My ideas come from observing people around me. I don’t look outside for any subject. They are all with me. I live my works,” says Pandi Ram.
The whole Bastar knows Pandi Ram. Once upon a time, even in Delhi people knew Pandi Ram very well. They called Pandi Ram, Pandi Seth.
Now things have changed. Pandi Ram does not travel much except for when he is invited in Lalit Kala Akademy camps. “There are not too many patrons for sculptures these days.” Pandi Ram says. He does not stop photographers from taking his photographs any more.
At his courtyard he invites us to have some sulfy. Sulfy is a drink tapped from a coconut tree like tree. The man who has taken the order of Pandi Ram at the brick field brings freshly tapped sulfy. One of his wives makes ‘glasses’ to pour sulfy. Feroze does not drink sulfy. He takes the pictures of Pandi’s wife when she makes the leaf cups. Then he documents each step of its making.
Pandi has five sons and one daughter. Elder of them comes forward to pour sulfy into my leaf cup. I find dead ants, bees and flies in it. For a moment I feel revulsion. But without making a face I drink sufly. But I take care that the bees and ants would not get into my mouth. Seeing my discomfiture, Pandi’s wife brings a sieve and his son sieves the drink into a steel vessel. I pour sulfy from my leaf cup into the sieve. Now I can drink without bees.
It is said that when dead insects are found in the toddy or sulfy, it is pure. If it is adulterated, you would not see dead insects in it. So I was having pure sulfy.
After a few leaf full of sulfy I am high. I ask Pandi about the famous ‘ants chutney’ eaten by the tribes in Bastar. Feroze wants to document the making of ants chutney. Pandi asks his wife to look for ants. But she says that the ants are not seen.
The talk turns into huting games. We ask whether they do still go for hunting. Pandy has his witty answer for this.
“Now there are no bears and tigers in the forest. They all have gone or eaten by us. Soon ants also will disappear,” Pandi smiles.
Pandi Ram’s house has wood carved panels for doors. “Every time an interested buyer comes here, my home loses its doors. So I need to make them again,” says Pandi.
Pandi is a sculptor with no pretensions. He has seen the world and he has seen life. He does not want to accumulate wealth. So he even today goes to the field to look after the vegetables he has planted. His sons also carve wood. But he does not know whether they would pursue a career in art or not.
It is almost six in the evening. I am high on sulfy. Pandi accompany us to a local Bamboo crafts centre, where we see Pandi’s wooden chairs displayed along with Bamboo life style items. I realize why Pandi’s studio has a poster of this centre. Later we drop him back to the wayside where he met us for the first time.
It is thick dark. I wonder how he would find his way. “I can see in night,” he says and hugs me.
We reach the Narainpura road that leads to Kondegaon. It is night and it is said that Naxalites haunt the road after sunset.
Somu drives fast. I look out for Naxalites. I transform myself into one of them; a professional guerrilla.
And I allow the car to pass safe along the frightened and benumbed Narainpur road. I fly along with it as I am high on sulfy.
PS: By evening I feel like taking a picture of myself with a different look. Feroze trains his camera at me and I strike a pose and I get an Arnold Shwarznegger effect on my face.