Saturday, May 7, 2011
One and Only Influence in My Life: To My Children 13
If you ask me the greatest influence I ever had in my life, I need not think twice. Later in my life many people, both historical and local people have moved me in certain sense, but when I talk about influence, I have only one name in my mind. You could be influenced when you are young and your mind is like a lump of clay. Anybody could mould you but you don’t even remain in that shape. You tend to change at every moment. The day you see Schwarzenegger on screen, you hit a gym. Another day you pick up the autobiography of Charlie Chaplin, there you go, your all effort is to become a Chaplin. Then you read Mahatma Gandhi and feel like him for some time. You listen to a song and go to a music class to become a singer. You read some romantic poetry written by Changampuzha or Edappally or Keats or Shelly, you start feeling like a lover in distress. When you are young everything moves you. But influence; that’s life changing and it cannot be done by everyone or everything.
My influence was Shibu Natesan, the artist. In the previous chapters, I had mentioned some of the incidents relating my attachment with Shibu. Here in this chapter I am going to tell you how I got influenced by this man who is just three years elder to me. Shibu and I are cousins. Our parents had a cross marriage within the family. His father married my fahter’s sister and my father married his father’s sister. For almost ten years we grew up together till Shibu’s family shifted to a near by town named Varkala where I later went to do my pre-degree course. Shibu was an agile child with big eyes and long dark hairs. He was not too tall. As he was skinny he could run faster than me and like dogs we were always running. He ran a few paces ahead of me, and puffing and panting I ran behind him. We ran through the edavazhikal (alleys) in Vakkom, which were filled with sugar like sand. Now these alleys are cemented or paved.
Shibu was the first person in my life whom I saw with a pair of suspenders attached to his knickers. All his knickers had suspenders and he never used to wear a shirt if he was out of school. The suspender of his left shoulder was always loose and it kept dangling around his elbow while running and his left hand automatically kept pulling it up to the shoulder. With a small stick held on his right hand, he struck a discarded cycle tyre and he imagined it as a bus. The tyre rolled and we all ran behind it. We all had discarded cycle tyres as our private ‘vehicles’. But Shibu’s was the best always because he used to reinforce one tyre with another tyre forcefully fixing the latter inside the groove of the former. Cycle tyres have two iron linings at the internal curves. It holds the tyre strong even if one could press it to different shapes. We used to go and stand in front of the cycle workshops in the village junction and plead with the shop owner for sparing a few tyres. Finally he would relent and Shibu chose the best for himself and gave me the ones with broken iron linings. So whenever I ran behind my tyre, it went like a wave instead of rolling like a wheel with dignity.
Once, my grandfather made a push cart for me. Two wooden wheels fitted at the either ends of a plank which was connected to a long shaft as handle made the push cart. One could push it and run and could imagine driving buses or cars or whichever vehicles we fancied at that time. We did not have too many options to fancy during those days. Buses were made by two companies: TATA and Ashoka Lyeland. There were a few Benz, Bedfords and Fargos but slowly they disappeared from the village. Amongst the cars we could only imagine Ambassadors and Premier Padminis (FIAT). Once in a while we saw a Standard car. Ships we saw in picture books, flights we saw in the sky and train we saw going through the village. So while pushing the cart we imagined these limited range of vehicles and according to the size of the vehicles our mouths over worked to make similar sounds of the engines. Whenever we wanted to travel by train, we took a piece of coir, tied the two ends and stood inside (quite a number of children) and ran in a line. Each child represented a bogey and the coir circle defined the contours of the train. And whenever we wanted to have a joy ride on a motor bike, we collected arecanut (beetle nut) tree’s fronds and made one child to sit on the broad edge and rest of the kids pulled the other end. As the earth was undulating the imaginary bike had to negotiate several bumps and pits. Thanks to this most of the kids in the villages including Shibu and myself had bruised bums, knees and torn bottomed knickers. And on holidays, all the kids looked as if they had been just created by God almighty out of dust.
Shibu was cunning enough to snatch that push cart from me. Instead, he swapped it for a swan cart. This swan cart was a small cart in the shape of a swan with multiple colors and was bought from Kanyakumari (Cape Comerin) during a family visit to the holy shrine there. As the base was thin and narrow, while I pulled the string the swan cart kept falling down. And in the meanwhile Shibu was taking all the pleasures of driving different vehicles with my push cart. He whirred past me several times, honking horns with his mouth and I had to jump aside with my hopeless swan cart. This was one incident that I clearly remember for his cleverness but that was quite fascinating. When I joined the first standard, he was already studying in the fourth standard there and he took a good care of me. Even I remember the color of the shirt that he used to wear during those days; orange and black checks all over. It was quite Mondrian like though we did not have any clue at that time who Mondrian was.
Shibu attracted me in several ways. First of all he presented himself as a person who could do anything in the world. Our world was limited so climbing a tree was one of the biggest tasks which he could do easily. Making tyres (I think we had this obsession for mobility even in those days) out of used and discarded rubber slippers was another task. We used to hunt for rubber slippers which could be converted into tyres. Shibu carved perfect circles out of the slippers, made small holes in the middle of them and fitted them on a thin iron or bamboo rod. It was further pushed into a hollow pipe or bamboo piece, which was then tied to a long handle. When his innovations and creativity reached to its height, he collected some plastic clothe hangers and bamboo pieces and made a steering wheel out of it and fitted it to the edge of the handle. And it heightened the pleasure of imagining. Even today, in Kerala, some crazy guys replace their cycle handles with original steering wheels!
Whatever Shibu did was something unique and innovative for me. During the summer holidays, whoever had lands would call laborers to ventilate the earth by digging the upper layer of sand. You could call it a kind of ploughing. The laborers came and they dug the land up leaving a lot of solid earth blocks all over. These earth blocks absorbed water when it rained and the layer underneath got fresh air and manure. Shibu and myself used to hunt for bigger sand blocks. Shibu carved the shapes of elephants, horses and different creatures out of it. Sitting under the calming shade of huge trees, we enjoyed these sessions of sculpting. I never had the proficiency to carve anything though I used to mimic whatever Shibu did. Our tools were twigs and bamboo pieces or some knife pilfered from the kitchen. When Shibu handed over each finished piece to me, I displayed them under the tree for other friends to come and enjoy. We had already been destined to become artist and curator, it seems in retrospection.
Another great feat that Shibu could carry out was his proficiency in drawing things on the mud walls. He with sticks and stones, drew pictures after pictures on the walls. I would suggest ‘cat’, then he drew a cat. I would suggest car, then he would draw a car. Even at that tender age of ten or something, his grasp on form was really commendable. What surprised me during those drawings sessions was that Shibu started a line somewhere which I thought would form the nose of the person, which later would end up as the elbow of the person whom he depicted. One day he drew the image of a bus and I could not understand why he foreshortened the image; he was giving a perspective to the bus, which I could not perceive. On another occasion he drew a bus in profile and its front was slightly bent like the tip of an expanded triangle. I could not understand the logic of it either. To appease my curiosity, he took me to the junction, waited for a bus to come and showed, how, seen from profile, the body of the bus has a nose like projection. I was convinced. Today, I could draw a bus and a car (Ambassador car) because I used to copy what Shibu used to do.
Shibu left our village as his father, my uncle started his studio (a painting atelier) in Varkala. Then we met only during the summer holidays. My father let us to stay in Varkala for a prolonged period so that we could stay together with our cousins. Shibu’s house in Varkala was near a Kavu (a small forest with a temple in the middle). We spent most of our time inside the kavu. Shibu used to tell me stories of the movies that he had seen during the years; he used to relate the class bunking experiences, about teachers, their nick names (one name I still remember ‘Kushnan’) and so on. He would introduce me to his new friends in Varkala. We never used to play anything in particular. Instead we walked all over the village or sat inside the kaavu. We lay down on the huge roots and day dreamed. Shibu took me to the small streams and rivers where we caught small fish using bathroom towels. We collected these fish in a glass jar, mostly empty Horlicks bottles, and brought back to home only to take them back to the stream and let them free after a few days.
‘Ovu’ or natural mineral water stream was another wonder world that Shibu had introduced to me. Shibu and many boys of his age used to go and take bath under these mineral water falls that came from the Sivagiri Hills. As most of those boys did not have many things to do, they used to spend a lot of time in and around these ovus; they climbed hills, collected berries and mangoes. It was heaven to be with Shibu during those summer vacations and we together explored several secrets. Years later, when we were in College and had stopped taking bath in places like that, we had found another use of those hills. As young college going boys we would climb these hills and sit on the branches of the cashew nut trees that covered the hills. From that vantage point we could see the village down there. We could see the waterway which had once been the artery of Kerala’s water transport, now lying disused. We could see people going about with their daily lives, we could see people working in the farms and fields, we could see people idling at the way side tea shops, we could see college boys and girls taking short cuts to reach the main town by climbing over the hills, we could see people taking bath under the streams, we could get occasional glimpses of women taking bath there under the ovus.
While sitting there we would hear some murmurs and hushed up giggles. Shibu told me that those were men and women just making out. There used to be a lot of perverts at that time in that village. They used to hide behind these cashew nut thickets and when the college girls passed by they would jump out in the middle of the desolated paths and flash their organs. Seeing the madness, girls would scream and run downhill. The pervert would withdraw into the thickets. Shibu used to tell me about the scenes he used to see when he visited those places alone with a sketchbook and charcoal in hand. He had witnessed a lot of scenes of people doing sin. But in village sins could take place only within the thickets. There were no places to hide. There used to be a lot of snakes in those thickets and wherever there are snakes there must be sin too. One day, while sitting on one of the branches of a tree, dangling our legs down and taking a full view of the village life down there, Shibu told me how he witnessed a dead body hanging from one of those trees in the last summer. He told me that the man was dripping of worms. Ever since, I never felt like going to those hills.
When I joined for the pre-degree course in the Sree Narayana College, Varkala, Shibu had already become an established figure in the village. There were reasons for that and all those reasons kept me pulling towards him as if he were a most powerful magnet in the world. When I was in the ninth standard, Shibu one day came to my village and talked to me about a special kind of trousers, which was called ‘Jeans’. Bellbottom pants were in vogue and I also had a few pairs, which had given me a squarish look. Shibu was in his first year degree at the Trivandrum Fine Arts College and he had already started showing symptoms of a rebel. He used to come back from the college and tell me a lot of stories when I visited him during the holidays. His words were like magic. He introduced me to books and articles, which I had no taste for previously. He changed the style of his drawings and with tremendous easiness he started capturing human beings and anything around him in a very expressionistic manner. He started talking about names which I had never heard of. And he was full of magic. I pined to reach Trivandrum along with him.
At that time nobody wore jeans. I remember in some of the films, then young Hero Kamal Hasan wearing bellbottom pants made out of denim. It was a phase of transition in the field of fashion. The seventies hangover was still around. Shibu told me that he was going to buy a pair of jeans from another city called ‘Kollam’ (Quilon). We were visiting Kanyakumari for some family function. We were all playing at the sea shore and Shibu threw his slippers into the sea. A few times the waves brought the slippers back. Then one slipper came and the other did not. Shibu waited for sometime. It was a family event and the whole family waited for the single slipper to come back. As it did not turn up, Shibu took the other slipper out and threw it back to the sea. Throughout the trip, he went around bare footed. This was an absurd action and it was the beginning of several absurdities of Shibu, which had bowled me over.
Shibu brought a pair of jeans and then one more. He shared one with me. It was almost sharing a great experience. Wearing a pair of jeans and a crape shirt was really an event in my village. I wore a very tight jeans and a shirt several times bigger than me and walked to the nearest railway station. People came out of the shops to see me walking and they were seeing for the first time in their life someone who was wearing something called jeans and a very large shirt.
There is a story behind very large shirts. ‘Pokkuveyil’, a film by late film maker, G.Aravindan was released in early 1980s. Though commercially it did not do well, amongst the intellectual circles, this film was a rage. Balachandran Chullikkadu, a young poet who had taken Kerala by storm with his poems and recitals was the hero in the movie. He enacted the role of a young man who was a self exile and the film was developed on a raga played by Hari Prasad Chaurasya. In this slow moving movie, Balachandran Chullikkadu walked with a slight bent on his back. He wore large shirts and always wore a white mundu. The young radicals of that time in Kerala fell in love with this character and many young boys started dressing up like him. Shibu designed his own shirts and got it stitched by a local tailor. He wore a mundu (temporarily discarded jeans) which reached above his ankles. He wore leather chappals and started walking with a bent. To add effect to the whole appearance, Shibu started carrying a huge umbrella with him. He spent several hours sketching local people in railway stations. He became a self exile in an agile society and the family members started giving him strange looks.
In the family circles, Shibu became a talking point because they judged his transformation as a result of his education at the Trivandrum Fine Arts College. As usual they all assumed that he was smoking marijuana and other stuff. In fact, though he tried them once in while he was never a regular smoker. We smoked cigarettes while he confided several things to me. When these changes were happening in Shibu’s life, I joined Varkala SN College for my pre-degree. I had this habit of finishing my syllabus at home and college was a complete bore. So instead of going to college, I spent time with Shibu, and he too skipped college once in a while for me. He introduced me to huge volumes of Picasso, Dali, Van Gogh and many other world masters. He spoke to me about the colors of Titian, perspective of Vermeer, light in Rembrandt and revolution in Goya. He spoke to me at length about Durer and his etchings. He related the stories of Andre Rublov and Ivan’s Childhood. He introduced me to the world of literature, art and movies. And the music was yet to happen.
Interestingly, like two young souls, we also got addicted to the life and times of Vincent Van Gogh. Shibu spoke to me about Irving Stone’s ‘Lust for Life’ and gave me a copy of it to read. Then he procured a copy of ‘Letters to Theo’ by Van Gogh. We were mesmerized. Since then we started behaving like Van Gogh and Theo. I was Theo and he was Van Gogh; he wrote me letters every day and he illustrated his letters with drawings. Then he sent them to me by post. I anxiously waited for them and the moment I got them I read them several times and replied him on the same day. It went on for several years in and from many countries wherever he sojourned, till emails happened. Shibu was intense in his writings, he had observations about anything and everything. When he was in Baroda, pursuing his masters degree in print making, these letters became very intense and often he spoke of the struggles that an artist faced both in the work front and in life. I had to be Theo to the true sense. Once from Baroda, Shibu wrote to me about what he smoked and how he smoked. And I was very much moved by his description. During those days my poems used to get published in some local magazines and journals. Once I got a remuneration of forty rupees for one of my poems. I took a twenty rupees note out of it and sent it to Shibu. Next week I received a mail from Shibu saying that he bought a few packets of cigarettes with that money.
During the college days Shibu was extremely intense. He went through different phases in his works. He was a super realist in the beginning. Then he became an impressionist or post-impressionist. Then he became an expressionist. Then a neo-expressionist and later on he became instrumental in establishing mediatic realism in contemporary Indian art context. In between, when he was a student in Trivandrum, he had an abstract phase. He painted several canvases in an abstract style, which he abandoned at some stage. One of the shocking things for the family members and most amusing thing for me was that Shibu during his abstract phase wanted to experiment with objects also. He started collecting different plastic and metal objects from different places. One day he started melting them and with the molten plastic and metal he painted on a plywood sheet. Layer after layer he added objects and molten plastic on it. He had not even heard of Anselm Keifer at that time. If he knew Keifer without fail I also would have known about him. But this experiment was happening quite naturally. However, these kinds of experiments also came to an end very soon.
But Shibu was always different and this difference was something that I wanted to create or emulate in my life. Shibu used to be a great story teller. He could present any incident in a very interesting way. Had he been a writer, he would have excelled in writing also. Lucky for me, he did not become one and became a painter. Thanks to his walking style and unheard of dressing style, Police used to pick him up once in a while. He had this habit of sitting at the railway stations and sketching people around. One night, after alighting from the shuttle train that ran between Trivandrum and Kollak, at the Varkala station, Shibu was sitting and sketching the people on the platform. It was dark and suddenly someone caught hold of his shoulder. It was a police inspector and soon he was bundled up and taken to the police station. Under the clear light in the police station, the inspector took a good look at this young man in his strange clothes, sketch book and umbrella, and started laughing. Shibu stood still staring back at the man’s eyes with defiance that came to the fine arts college students naturally. The inspector flipped through the sketch book and appreciated his works. “So you are a fine arts student?” asked the inspector. Shibu nodded his head in agreement. “Okay, you should not be seen at odd times in places like railway station. Anti-social elements are very much there,” said the inspector. He let Shibu go because he knew about fine arts college and also he knew about the students who went there were mostly crack pots.
Whenever Shibu recounted the fine arts college students’ encounter with police force, he recollected this particular story of a common friend who was once caught by another inspector in a similar context. This time, the inspector was a bit more intelligent and informed but in a quirky sense. The student stood shivering before the inspector. Taking this as an opportunity to play his quirkiness, the inspector started raving and fuming. He bullied the student a bit and shot this classic question: Who did Picasso? The student was taken aback for a moment. But he had a sense of repartee and promptly he gave the answer, “Guernica, Sir.” Crestfallen, the inspector let the boy go and never arrested any other fine arts student in his life.
Crack pots, mad people, people with strange characters, poets, lovers and some people who were overawed by the presence of geniuses gravitated towards Shibu and without any reservations he introduced all of them to me. By that time, I too had moved to Trivandrum to join my graduate course and I started spending more time in Fine Arts College than in my own college. Shibu was a sort of hero in the college as everyone respected his talents. He introduced me to so many people. We spent several hours together in the public library premises where we met writers, madmen, drug addicts, idlers, intellectuals, philosophers, homosexuals, film makers and so on. Homosexuals had always a strange attraction towards Shibu and me. They came around us and asked for favors and for us it was fun to fool them by giving them hopes.
Shibu had a very serious love affair with a woman who was a few years senior to him. She knew me and once in a while we spent time together discussing art and literature. After Trivandrum fine arts college and before joining Baroda, Shibu rented out a couple of studio spaces in Trivandrum city and that became my hang out. We smoked for hours and listened to Hindustani classical music. Shibu was the one who introduced me to classical music. Shibu had some initial set backs in his education and career but after his Baroda stint, he started going from strength to strength. And from Baroda he wrote to me about his life and art. Also he introduced me to Bob Marley and reggae music. That was one of the most interesting moments in my life.
I was deeply in love with a girl and I had not yet opened my heart to her. One day I did it and she accepted me. My joy knew no bounds. That was the day Shibu came back from Baroda. He had been talking to me about Bob Marley and his music, through the innumerable letters that he used to send to me from Baroda. When he came, he brought one recorded cassette with all the LEGEND songs plus a few other tracks. At his Trivandrum home where his girl friend stayed, we sat, smoked and listened to Bob Marley. ‘Coming in from the cold’ was the number that attracted me most at that moment. May be I was in love and I wanted to identify with the mood of that song. ‘It’s you, it’s you that I am talking to now…why do you look so sad, and forsaken, when one door is closed don’t you know another is opened” My experiments with women were all flops and now another door was opened and I was hoping the best to happen.
Bob Marley later on became an obsession for me. Shibu went on to study the history of reggae music and today he is one of the rare people who know anything and everything about the history of black music including that of reggae. I too pursued a bit of the history of black music as a part of my interest in the history of black liberation movements.
A series of events that took place between the years 1990-1992, took me to Baroda Fine arts faculty where Shibu had already finished in post graduation. I joined the art history MA course. Shibu was staying in a rented apartment in Baroda. I spent my days and nights with Shibu in Baroda. While he painted, I sat and read. We listened to music while smoking weed. We gossiped and joked and some black guys living near Nizampura even took us for a gay couple. One day, after my education I left for Delhi. Shibu wanted me to go to Mumbai. But somehow, Mumbai was not my choice. I came to Delhi. Within a year Shibu went to Amsterdam for further studies. He kept writing to me from there too.
Years passed by. Shibu became Shibu Natesan as we know today. We had some issues between us. We had a severe fight in 2005 and stopped talking to each other. For a long time we did not talk at all. One day, we met in Delhi and he said hello and I too said hello. Then we became friends again. I don’t know whether we are friends or cousins or things like that. There is something that bonds me with him and him with me. We still fight while we chat in Facebook. We have different opinion about life. We have different approaches now. But there is something that holds us together. Could it be love or sin?