Sunday, July 24, 2011
A Man who Says No to Nothing- Life and Times of Sidharth- 1
“There was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy and he wandered very far, very far, over land and seas, a little shy, and sad of eyes, but very wise was he...” The opening lines of Nat King Cole’s ‘Nature Boy’ reverberate in your mind, evoking the very same velvety feelings when you sit before Sidharth, the artist and listen to his stories. He is just like that nature boy, who left his home not just to see the lands and seas. But he was taken away by the tide of life and it was necessary. But like the nature boy he was an enchanted one. He loved the nature so much that he found everything at every step that he made or he makes even today so enchanting and reinvigorating. Nothing, nothing in the world could be seen without wonder, he believes. Besides, he tells you that he is a person who says no to nothing.
That means he says yes to everything; whether it is sorrow or joy, pain or bliss, money or poverty, contentment or frustration. He is a Buddhist in that sense but now he does not belong to any religion or region. Sidharth tells you that he belongs to the world, nay, he belongs to the cosmos, like a drop of water in the ocean, a star amongst the billions of shining bodies in the sky, a sand particle on the earth, a leaf in a tree, a creature under a stone and a memory embedded in the pigments of the nature.
In a documentary made on his life and art by the noted documentary maker, K.Bikram Singh, in the last shot, Sidharth is seen walking away from the camera, into the threshold of a new life, into the life of light and music telling the world that he is neither a Buddhist nor a Sikh, he is neither a Hindu or a Catholic. He is an artist and art is his religion. If Sidharth is denying religions then there must be a past in which he had gone through all these faiths. Yes, tells he, as a young man he had gone through most of the religions; he had lived them, studied them and experienced them. But art proved purer and stronger than any other religion. But he keeps the name, Sidharth that he received from the monastery in Dharamsala in 1960s. Sidharth, then is not a name though it shows its adherence to a particular religion. But in its essence, Sidharth is a notion; the one who gained all what he wanted.
What does one want exactly in this life? Sidharth asks sitting before a canvas in his Sukhdev Vihar studio on in New Delhi. His studio is spacious, clean and aesthetically arranged. Right at the entrance through a scribble there is a subtle suggestion that you may remove your shoes at the small lobby. However, he does not insist that one should do it. It is just a suggestion and if you want to use a pair of house slippers you could take from there. The reception area could be doubled up as a drawing room cum a viewing room. Along the walls you see a strip of cushioned sofa running and adjoining to the door there is a custom-made shelf in which Sidharth keeps some state of the art gadgets including a projector, CD player and woofer sound system. With the click of a switch, on the other end of the room a screen comes down and you could watch movies, documentaries and any visual thing projected on it. It is not just a home theatre that makes your week-end evenings a bit luxurious. For Sidharth it is one of the essential things in a studio.
If brushes could tell you the story of his travels, or we could identify the nationality of a brush through the width, breadth, length and the feel of it, the ones that are seen hanging from stylish frames like the bells and cylinders in a monastery or a church, they would simply reveal the number of shores that Sidharth has touched so far. A widely travelled artist, Sidharth even today brings back brushes both exotic and custom made from wherever he goes. Perhaps he does not use them all in one go. There is a time for everything. So are the pigments neatly powdered and kept in the jars with labels on them prettily sitting in rows at the at shelves built along the walls of the adjoining open rooms where Sidharth keeps his canvases and papers at the easels.
Each pigment, collected has a different story to tell. On the one side you see the pigments collected from India and on the other side of the wall in a larger shelf you see the pigments collected from all over the world. Sidharth does not use any synthetic colours. He prepares his own colours through the natural herbs, stones and other materials. Even his studio assistants are now the experts in making pigments and at times they could even identify certain stones and leaves that could yield colours for their master. On each side of the shelves Sidharth has made some meticulously done colour chart including the various tones that he has obtained through the permutations and combination of different pigments.
Let’s go back to the question that Sidharth has raised; what does one exactly want in this life? All these years have taught him the answer, ‘Nothing’. In fact one does not need too many things in this world. But everyone is behind accumulating everything; the more the better is the motto of the world. We have become the mis-users and abusers of our own desires, passions and needs. This Sidharth had learnt at a very early age itself because he was born in nothing. In 1956, in a small village in rural Punjab, Sidharth born to a Gurbaani singing father and a mother who helps the village people to dye their clothes, could not have expected more. Yes, of course, he could have expected more from the less. The more he listened to his father reciting the verses from the Guru Granth Sahib in his beautiful voice the more he got the meaning of life and its beauties. The verses talked about the valiant lives of the people who lived the life of poetry; the people who fought for the wellbeing of nature. The more he listened to the stories recounted by his mother while doing the dyeing work or other odd jobs, the more Sidharth got the warp and weft of life creating beautiful patterns called experiences.
Hence, less was always more there in the village for Sidharth. He showed talent in singing and painting; and he did not have much surfaces to paint on, not even enough of paper or pencils. So what he could do was make his own colours. You don’t believe, we were the poorest of the poor but with the purest of souls, says Sidharth. We did not rebel but we revelled in our nothingness, we revelled in our undistinguished lives. We could see, touch, taste, breath and listen life. It was a very rounded phenomenon for us. Father sang songs throughout the day, mother worked and she spoke to the nature, to the birds, dogs, cats and anything that came around her. I was one of them, Sidharth remembers.
Mother taught Sidharth to collect pigments from the earth; find the colours of the earth. She would go around in the village, find herbs, stones, insects, fruits, berries that yielded colours. She carefully categorised them in her shack. Then she powered them one by one and collected them in bottles. Sidharth was the assistant. He could see colours coming out of hard stones that had soft souls, from leaves those were looking defiant at one stage, from insects that looked poor and un-harming like Sidharth himself. It became a practice then a feeling; the oneness with the nature. Nothing was different from the other, Sidharth realized. Everything could yield fruits to everybody else. You are fruit unto yourself too. This was how Sidharth learned the initial lessons in making his own colours, on nothingness, on oneness and the great feeling of being with everything and say yes to everything whether it was hurting or comforting.
Attending a village school, helping mother in her works, and listening to father’s Gurbaani singing and assisting him in his recitals, matured Sidharth faster than any other boys of his age lived in a different circumstances. The pittance that his parents earned from their respective jobs (if those could have been called jobs) was not enough for the family. Despite the philosophical bent of their lives, money was always needed. Sidharth, with his capacity to do calligraphy, letter writing and painting, started assisting a signboard painter in the village. He painted billboards, signboards, small advertisements and so on. He was hardly ten then. At that same time, the village artist master, Tara Mistry was doing some murals and frescoes in the towns around. Mother wanted Sidharth to do apprenticeship under Tara Mistry. Her sole aim was that Sidharth could survive in this world, after their death, as a mistry, doing frescos and paintings. Sidharth was ready to do anything at that time and he became the apprentice of Tara Mistry. As they say, providence has its own games reserved for an individual. Tara Mistry also did not use industrial coloursl; he too used locally available colours made out of the materials around. Sidharth adept hands became an added support to Tara Mistry and on the other hand, Sidharth learnt the techniques of mural and frescoes.
Sitting in front of a half finished painting with a predominant red flat colour as the background Sidharth’s memories go back to his childhood days. He remembers his mother and tells you that the woman who is sitting on the right corner of the painting is his mother. You train your eyes to see any resemblance between him or the old lady seen depicted there. Strained by work and drained by age, a pious looking lady with compassionate eyes is seen working at something. In the middle of the painting you see a beautiful tree filled with fruits, birds and two big peacocks. Right under the tree, on the left side of the painting you see an old Sikh man sitting and reading something. You could make out that he is his father singing Gurbaani. He did not do anything other than singing those verses. That was his life, says Sidharth. Today, Sidharth, despite his sojourn through different religions, finds his reservoir of energy, ideas, philosophical clarity from the verses of Guru Granth Sahib which he can recite from any part at any time of the day.
This is a Badam tree, Sidharth smiles. In the area where we used to live was not conducive enough to rear trees like Badam. One day my mother got a badam seed from somewhere. She bought it and buried it in the earth right in front of our house. I was surprised to see this. I told her why she did that as she knew for sure that badma was not the kind of tree that grew in that part of the world. But she smiled at me. She told me that there was no problem in trying. She watered the seed every day. And like the will power of my poor parents to wade through the difficult situations through the pious acts, the seed too sprouted. And today it is a big tree though my mother is not there to nurture it any more.
The painting brings out the feelings that Sidharth has for his parents who used to sit under this tree at one point of time or he imagines them to have sit. Sidharth had to leave for Macleod Ganj in Himachal Pradesh immediately and his life was taking a different course. And he never saw his parents again. The pathos is very palpable in the painting. One could see a bird picking up seeds or pebbles. It could take you the stories or fables of different kinds. For Sidharth, these small acts, these small acts of faith and love, these small lives mean a lot. His parents become visionaries and sages in this paintings and whether it is intentional or not, one could not have painted them outside of such a frame work. They become part of the cosmos where human beings stand just as a constituent part while the pious ones shine like stars in the Milky Way.
I would not sell this painting, says Sidharth. You smile at him because you know that he is one of those artists in India who even during the market boom or market recession have steady clients and patrons. In my studio no work stays. Whenever I finish a work, someone comes and picks it up. I am lucky in that way but this painting is for myself as I have kept my music for myself; my soul for myself. This painting is the beginning of an autobiographical series, which Sidharth calls ‘Thousand Feet and Hands’. This is an autobiographical series without my presence in it, he confirms. Opening a file pretty thick with the drawing sheets kept inside it, Sidharth shows you the preparatory and spontaneous drawings that he has made for this series.
These are the pictures of the people from his childhood and youthful days. They are the ordinary people who lived their lives in the village without ever going out and seeing the world. But they knew the bigger world out there through their philosophical thinking; simple thinking. They believed in the Gurus and their praising for the nature. They believed in nature and they lived according to its varying moods. They believed in people and they lived like a community bounded by love and care. They were barbers, cobblers, postman, farmer, village fool, soldier, rebellious young man, loveable young girl and so on. They are not the idealized character from a typical Yash Chopra movie that showed the picture of rural Punjab as if that was the place the Mahabharata took place and people still lived a life from the epics.
Through these pictures of the simple people Sidharth wants to tell the story of a time as seen through the eyes of an artist, a friend and a human being. He recalls the cobbler singing verses from the Guru Granth Sahib. He remembers the young guy who was gifted with so much of creative talents getting addicted to drugs and becoming a vagabond. Sidharth remembers those gory days, though he was not physically present there, when the motorcycle borne guys armed with AK-47 rifles coming to the village and shooting people randomly and leaving many dead and several injured. Sidharth has found out a calligraphic script of his own to write poems supplementing to the narratives involved in his paintings. He writes these poems on to the pictorial plane of his works. Though they look like a jumble of recognizable and strange alphabets, they have a logic of their own that Sidharth could understand. He recites one for you from the painting where the Badam tree is depicted in the centre. He sings.
Sidharth sings his blues and his joy. He rocks with a rock group. For many Sidharth is a spiritual artist whose paintings are filled with droopy eyed levitating figures. For many others, Sidharth is person who is reluctant to speak to people. Yet another lot believes that Sidharth is on a trip which does not have do anything with the social concerns. But anytime, myths are evolved around an artist who is slightly aloof from the din of the daily life and socializing. The enigmatic Sidharth is a myth developed out of his aloofness. He is a many sided personality with a 360 degree life and interest for it. He does not say no to anything and life comes calling him all the times. His doors are always open. This is my effort to essay his life in words. In the coming chapters the enigmatic Sidharth would become a more affable personality because I too once thought that Sidharth was not a person who would have anything to share with a person like me.