Thursday, July 28, 2011
The Night Watchman and Art Student in Chandigarh: Life and Times of Sidharth 5
For Sidharth relocating from Sweden to India was like coming back from nature to culture. You may find it surprising when someone says that a western country is more natural than India because we often think that the Indians are more natural and the west is all about culture. There is a strong distinction between natural and the cultural. Theoretically it is said that cultural is something that is made out of the natural. Cultural is therefore an interpolation on the core of what we deem natural. When someone is cultured, or cooked from the raw state, certain fundamental traits are erased from him or her. Being cultural was the necessity of the time as human beings were moving from one state of physical existence to another. It facilitated the changes in the mental status too, By being natural one is not just being raw but one could be closer to the earth, closer to the elements and closer to the inner voices.
In Sweden, unlike his previous phase of life in India, Sidharth had seen the true flourishing of the natural. They live as per the demands of the nature. According to Sidharth, the Swedish people did not violate nature in a big way. Of course, he had seen clear urban places there. But in a country where sun does not set for a prolonged period of time, things have to be different. Even the so called cultured urban life cannot be like anywhere else in the world. During the prolonged white nights, people were completely thrown into the hands of nature. Everything was washed clean by the sunlight. And if you thought about the psychological status of the people living there, it was totally different from a person like Sidharth who had gone there from India. People did not believe in restrictions because they knew that nature had shown them the infinite possibilities of freedom through sending them prolonged days and prolonged nights.
During those white nights, Sidharth remembers, people just hang out in places completely naked. In fact there is no word like naked or nude in Swedish language, says Sidharth. For them, the unclothed state of being is ‘natural’ state. Most of them spent their white nights in the gardens, forest clearings and country sides. They moved around without clothes. They did not look at each other with the eyes of sin. Everyone welcomed everyone else to have a beer or coffee. You could just hop into anybody’s garden and join them to chit chat or to sing or to share some great food and wine. They never looked at people with suspicion. Nature had taken all the doubts away from their minds. During those prolonged nights’ season, if you are on the wayside and don’t have anything else to do, you can just wave a caravan or car down and if there is space you could just travel with them. You are always welcome there.
It comes from the natural state; from a sort of awareness that you cannot fight with nature. You cannot win nature by force. Hence, the best way is to flow with it. Know the throbs of a bird’s chest, listen to the gurgling sound of a spring, hark for the breathing of the trees and give ear to the whisperings of the forest. If you are a keen listener you could even listen to the songs created and sung by the bus tyres. You could extract musical notes from the harshest engines on the roads. You need to be extremely sensitive to know such things. You cannot avoid anything in that natural state. You would listen to a drop of water saying good bye to the tap in the kitchen sink. You would listen to the splashing sound of the drop falling on the hollow steel of the sink. You feel the ventilated holes sucking the wetness of that drop from the surface of it. You cannot escape anything when you are natural. And to become natural you need to be deeply silent from inside and if possible deeply calm from outside also. Sweden was offering all these to Sidharth who was more tuned to a life of silence than anything else.
One fine morning I find myself in Chandrigarh, says Sidharth, It was like getting airdropped from the lonely mountains to the middle of a fair. My parents had been dead and gone for so long. And those people whom I knew from my childhood had gone into different walks of like. I was literally orphan standing in the middle of a city and looking all around to know what to do or what to not to do, where to go or where not to go. You cannot erase all the people from this earth and even in an orphaned state you will find people coming to help you as if they were sent by gods. I had some connection with some friends in Chandigarh. They advised me to join the Chandigarh Art College. Getting admission was not a problem though I was academically qualified to get admitted. Somehow I managed to get admission as the management liked me and they might have obviously felt pity for me as I was a person suddenly landed from an alien planet with none to connect in the new world.
Chandigarh was an inspiration and threat at the same time because Sidharth liked the city for its planned nature and disliked it for the loud nature of the people. The rich and influential in the city were always roaming around in vehicles and they did not know how to make polite conversations. In fact, they are polite people but their way of showing mutual admiration and politeness is different. Punjabis are vey exuberant people. They want to show everything outside. Even their patting is a sort of bulldozing. I hated this din for endless reasons, remembers Sidharth. I wanted to be alone and quiet and at the same time I wanted to connect to people deeply in a different way. I did not know how to do that. I did not have any money and my poverty I wore like a shame. But against my disliking for the loud people in Chandigarb, giving me surprises one after another help came from the very same people.
With so much of fondness Sidharth remembers one incident that happened to him in London. He was in a gala function with lot of rich people around. A burly Sardarji came around and looked at Sidharth for some time and exclaimed, Tusi to woh pagal Sidharth to nahin? (Aren’t you the same mad Sidharth?). With a smile Sidharth got up and hugged the man. Yes, I am the same mad Harjinder, said Sidharth. The Sikh gentleman was extremely happy to see Sidharth in a good shape because when he met him last years before Sidharth was not in a good shape. And it was the same gentleman who helped Sidharth to survive during his art college days in Chandigarh.
I was in a bad shape because I did not have any money to buy food or clothes. I did not even have money to buy art materials, remembers Sidharth with a fair amount of detachment. The Sikh gentleman whom I met in London was also studying n the same college and he came from a very rich background. He really wanted to help me and at the same time like any practical Sikh people, he thought that he should not be giving charity to me. So he asked me one day whether I was ready to work as a night watchman at his farmhouse in the suburbs of Chandigarh. You would get food, art materials, a place to sleep and some money as remuneration, said that friend. There was no need to think twice before my friend stopped his sentence my yes was given then and there. Hence that day onwards, during day time I studied at the college and by evening I cycled to the suburbs, to the farmhouse of my friend and guarded the property.
In fact, when Sidharth looks back he is sure that he did not protect his friend’s property. Instead, he became friendly with the nightly invaders in the property namely monkeys, foxes, mongooses, owls and some snakes. I used to stay awake. The path way that took a left turn from the main road led to this property and there were also other farm houses. But there were no guards to take care of those properties. So when night fell I was like a shipwrecked man marooned in a lonely island with only darkness and the sounds of the night creatures to give me company. Every night I made a fire at the courtyard, made songs and sang them. When I sang, from a distance the jackals and foxes gave me accompaniment. I wrote poems after poems, and most of them were the wailing of a lonely soul searching for the ultimate truth. I could feel my father taking me over and singing through me. I drew pictures, I painted and I cried.
Sidharth friend wanted to know how his college mate doubled up as a night watchman in his farm house. So one day he gave a surprise visit and found that Sidharth had made friends with a lot of creatures around and the nights of Sidharth at the farmhouse were much richer and exciting than those in the pubs and beer bars in the cities. The friend left without a comment after spending a night full of songs and drawings. The next weekend he returned with a car full of friends and the farm house became the next centre of meeting for the young and creative boys in Chandigarh. They all started respecting me a different way. They knew that I was one of them and at the same time I was different from them. My poverty was my difference, my humility was my difference, the shame, the pity, the sorrows, the simplicity, the dreams that I left behind in that white country all were my difference. And my friends knew it. I was not surprised when my friend called me mad when he met me after several years in a foreign shore. I was really mad then and I was mad like an artist, a poet and a singer.
Chandigarh was a not just poetry and revelry for Sidharth. According to him this was an ideal place for an art student in those days. There are two reasons that Sidharth cites to support his views. First of all the city was designed by the famous architect Le Corbusier. It was neat, clean, planned and made you comfortable at any given time. Secondly, the art college did not have any good teachers then and there was no fear of getting polluted by bad education. You had teachers, some of them lenient enough to allow you to go ahead with the kind of works that you liked to do. So you were doubly equipped. You had a nice environment and you did not have any teachers who would breath down on your neck. You could do anything that you wanted.
Sidharth is an artist who never wants to work with synthetic colours or materials. But when you are in an art college you cannot demand natural pigments. Nor do you have the time and scope for hunting materials to make powdered pigments. In that situation Sidharth too was introduced to synthetic colours. I started using pencil for the first time in Chandigarh College of Art. I was introduced to watercolours, oil paints and acrylic paints. I approached them the way I approached the natural colours. I did not feel any contempt for the industrially produced colours. I approached them with a sort of reverence and tried to understand the ways in which the colours behaved because I knew that colours also had their own kind of life.
Sidharth treats materials as people. He believes that they have their own lives and existence. Even the brushes have their own life, he seems to say. This comes from a deeply rooted reverence for the materials from the earth. It was inculcated in him by his mother and the artists in the Buddhist monastery. Sidharth felt comfortable with the materials as he treated them as living organisms. It was not just being spiritual or being naive, says Sidharth. Even today I believe that the colours could lead you to certain forms. Colours could give certain density to figures that you do. They lead you to your metaphor. You can manipulate the colour in some parts and some parts you should allow the colours and materials to lead you on. That’s why when I do water colour or gouache I don’t insist that the result should be like a typical Sidharth canvas. They have a different life. No artist can replicate the effects of a work of art on a second medium or with a second material because the material and medium are also integral part of the metaphor that you have created and it is very unique, believes Sidharth.
In Chandigarh, Sidharth was always looking for something as he was restless. What was he searching for, he did not know? Was he searching for his lost parents? Sidharth did not have an answer. If he was looking out for friends, he had a lot of friends and there was no need to search for them and all of them loved Sidharth despite his financial or social status. For them he was an artist with a lot of experience at a very young age itself. The year was 1976. Political Emergency declared by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was on place. The state machinery was working overtime to make things happen the way the Prime Minister wanted. Many writers, artists and intellectuals were put behind bars. Some of the friends of Sidharth who were involved in a political rebellion were also put into jails and tortured. Sidharth was aloof but the news from his friends disturbed him. He started looking for the real essence of life amongst people who were living in perpetual fear.
The first series of works, considering the oeuvre of Sidharth was happened during those years of political turmoil. This particular series was called the Bus Stop Series. I used to spend a lot of time in the bus stops looking for people who were travelling to one place to another. I did not know from where they were coming and where they were going. But all were on the movie. I started sketching them furiously. Hours after hours I sat in the bus stops and sketched people. Initially I was capturing the likeness of the people using expressionistic lines but later on I lost interest in their likeness. Slowly the people were abstracted into certain forms, which I liked a lot. Also I notice that most of the people in the bus stops stood still. All of them were about to travel but they had been caught in an inexplicable stillness. To my surprise I realised that the abstracted forms of these people were also still with only the images of the children and the dogs imparting some kind of movement to the images within these drawings. I could sense the essence of life through these drawings. People were travelling and yet they were not travelling. They were in an illusion of their own movements. They were caught in a web of circularity and repetition. Only the children and dogs showed the animation of life because they were ignorant and aware at the same time.
In Orhan Pamuk’s early novel ‘The New Life’ (1997) you find a similar situation like this. The protagonist in the novel goes to the bus stops and bus stations to see the people who were in a journey and he joins them in a journey to the unknown places. Without any particular notion about where he was going he changes buses and moves from one city to another, one dingy dark town to another. But he has a specific aim and that is the exploration of a new world where a new life is waiting for him. He also imagines that the entry into the new world or life is possible only through confronting death by accidents, that too bus accidents. So he chooses the dilapidated buses and also opts for those bus companies that have scored a maximum in making accidents and deaths. Was it the same death wish that Sidhath was experiencing through his sketching of the travellers in the bus stops? Or was he trying to externalize his desire to be away from the places known to him and go to the places where he did not know anyone or anything? Was Sidharth looking for another journey that would take him to a realm where he could sing new songs and find new natural colours?
The answers could be negative and affirmative at the same time because Sidharth was going through a tremendous amount of existential angst at that time. He had just left his wife back in Sweden. He had died his spiritual death there in St.Birgitta’s church only to resurrect as a new person. While flying back he thought he was going to a nest that was the embodiment of the whole world. But here he was locked up in Chandigarh, during day time as a student and at night as a watchman in a distant farm house. He wanted his life to be something else and he wanted a metaphor for his life. The immediate thing that he could found out was the bus stop where people moved like ghosts as if they were escaping from their own graves.
This phase of Sidharth cannot be called a pessimistic phase because it was his way of finding the truth of life. Like a true Gurbaani singer, it is through wailing and singing out his sorrows, he realizes his god. Hence, the Bus Stop series could be considered as Sidharth’s first serious effort in his paintings to understand the core of life through the metaphor of people, which could be at a later stage abstracted into forms with movements suggested by the children and dogs.
At the other end of the tunnel, the light was beginning to appear. But before that something hit Punjab and Sidharth too was hit along with that. Sidharth’s art and the artist in Sidharth were taking a different turn; a turn that would take him to the contemporary realities of his homeland, Punjab.