Tuesday, July 26, 2011
A Young Lama and Tankha Painter: Life and Times of Sidharth 3
Shadows move on the wall. Evening sets in and the slanting light that seeps in through the huge glass wall that gives a view to the park down there, fills in the studio. The light illuminates both Sidharth and myself now sitting like two wayfarers who have temporarily met at a inn to spend a night. As if the faces around a campfire were illuminated by the crackling fire in their midst, our faces too glow sucking in all the lights submerging the silence in the studio. I think about why during the old times there developed a tradition of story-telling. Now sitting in front of Sidharth and waiting for him to come out of the trance that he has gone into all of a sudden, I understand the reason behind the story telling traditions.
People worn by the tasks of a day gather around a fire made in front of a hut or inside an inn. They are all tired and they want to ease themselves down. They want to take out all the burdens and engage themselves into a sort of game that would take them to a different plane; a plane that takes them away from the mundane realities. That is realm where they live their real lives. One of them may be a cobbler, travelling from his village to a city where he would like to find a suitor for his daughter. The other one may be a thief wandering to find a good treasure so that he could break in and pilfer. One of them may be the king himself disguised as a wandering mendicant just to know what his subjects think about him and his governance. Or they may be simply the village folk who just want to share their stories told to them by their ancestors.
Stories transcend them. They don’t see each others’ face though they could occasionally see the contours of their mates sitting around the fire, accentuated by the dancing flames. A person who joins from outside could see them in full view as if they were a lotus lit up from inside. When they don’t see each other’s face the place itself transforms into a platform or a confession chamber, where you could let out your stories, perhaps your own stories masqueraded as the stories of others. Good story tellers use others as a decoy. They make use of others for their purpose and most of the good stories therefore become allegories about life. Through these allegories they tell the simpler facts that contain the larger truths of life.
That’s why people tell stories. There was a time when there was no electricity, which would have made several other mediums of entertainment possible as that we see today. When there were no possibilities of varied entertainments music, dance and stories were the prime ways of entertaining themselves. So the village folk gather around the fire, which was the source of light and heat, sang, danced and told stories. To supplement the stories, they sang at times, danced once in a while and even they showed pictures drawn crudely by the teller himself and at times even they acted out the stories. Hence, story-telling was a holistic performance; that was ritualistic on the one hand and performative on the other. They could vent their feelings through these stories and they could express the larger truths of life through the stories invented by themselves and their ancestors.
Story telling tradition is strong amongst the villagers. When they look into the darkness at night and sit there for long without thinking anything else than contemplating on the bluish thickness of the darkness that had enveloped all the familiar surroundings into a strange mass of darkness, from inside the layers of that darkness came out stories fantastic than any magical realist could have imagined. Looking at the darkness was pure contemplation. You look at the darkness and nothing is seen. You feel you also have dissolved into it. You grope around to find familiar objects and even you touch yourself to know whether you are really present or not. And darkness makes your senses more alert. You could listen to the ants talking, crickets singing, dews dropping, birds chirping in half sleeps and a dog smiling in his dreams.
And from that darkness stories come to you. The initial commotion while confronting the darkness is turned into a facility of existence. From the darkness weave in stories and weave out dreams. And when your fellows come around you and around the fire that you have kindled, you start telling stories. Your stories trigger other people to take out their stories because in a village setting like that you and I are the same. You and the other do not exist. Everyone lives everyone else’s life too. You are all tied with the thread of the same destiny. Like the beads of sorrows held together by a thread called dream, you all together live in the village to tell a tale. And these tales take you a different life where the beggar in you could be the king of a huge kingdom, the cowardice in you could win several wars and above all you could confess, you could cry, you could lay bare your soul before others because lit up by the fire and glowed by the flames your face becomes just a mask, a mask that an actor wears; you become a metaphor that everyone understands.
Sidharth wakes up from his momentary trance. Perhaps, he was standing once again at the shores of the lake where he bid his last good bye to his village. I smile at him and we could see our faces turning into a pair of masks.
Sidharth tells me a story:
Once there was a thief. He was wandering all over the city waiting for an opportunity to strike at a few rich houses near around the king’s palace. It was a right time to be in the city because the city was mourning the death of their king, who had met with an untimely death but whose body was never recovered.
One night the thief managed to get into a house. He stuffed his sacks with gold coins and precious gems. While jumping out from the roof of the house, he was seen by the night guards in the streets. He was summarily caught and thrashed up by them.
In the absence of the king, the minister was taking care of the country’s affairs. He too was sleepless since the death of the king because it was he who had sent people to kill the king and bury his body. When the commotion was going on there in the street, the minister was sitting awake at his study, thinking about the future plans.
In the meanwhile, when the guards brought the thief under the light of the street lamp they were shocked. The thief was exactly looking like their departed king. They thought the king had gone on disguise and he was fooling the people by declaring that he was dead. They brought the thief before the minister.
The minister looked at the thief and found out the strange resemblance between him and the dead king. Then suddenly something struck in his mind. He immediately thought out a plan. He told the soldiers that the thief was their king and it was time to tell the subjects about the truth that the king had gone out on a disguise and now he was back in town.
People rejoiced on the arrival of the king who in fact was the thief. The minister told the thief about his plan and if he played along the thief also would be benefitted by the game. Otherwise, the minster threatened, he would face the same fate as the king had faced. The thief agreed to play along. Slowly the thief left his character as a thief and developed the traits of a king. He even forgot that he was the product of the minister’s cruel game.
I am the thief, says Sidharth. How, I ask.
I was a thief, who knew only to steal images from the world and reproduce them on papers or walls. I was called by someone and made me a king. But I did not lose the power to paint. I became a king who could paint.
Who is the minister then, I ask, half serious and half joke.
Sidharth looks out and tells me that the minister could be the very nature itself. Or if you call it destiny, then destiny. If you call it the Dorji of the Buddhist monastery in Dharamsala, it is him. The answer could go on like that.
When Siddharth left the residence of Shobah Singh to join the Lamas in the monastery in Dharmasala, he did not know that he was going to become a Buddhist monk. It was sheer chance and pure destiny.
Sitting amongst the young and old Lamas, Sidharth started learning the basics of Buddhism. He started off there at Dharamsala as a Tankha painter. Tankhas are the large format paintings on clothes that mostly depict the life of Buddha and various sub-stories in a peculiar narrative style with a predominant icon of Buddha in the middle of the pictorial surface. It takes several years of intense devotion and training to become a Tankha painter. For the Buddhist monks from Tibet who are settled in India, Tankha painting is not a way to show off their creative talents. They don’t even intend them to be shown in a gallery. Tankha painting is a pure form of devotion using the colours from nature and depicting the life of Buddha.
Sidharth was more than happy to become a Tankha painter. The way Sidhartha, the Buddha severed the ties from his family, Sidharth, the painter too was severing his ties from his former life; his parents were dead by then and he had none to possess as his own. He had nothing left in the village and none was waiting for his coming back.
While discussing his latest series of paintings, ‘The Thousand Hands and Feet’, Sidharth remembers two things. One, I should not say that none was waiting for me in the village. There was one girl senior to me who used to love me a lot. I could not say she loved me the way the lovers did because both of us were very small then. However, she loved me as her best friend. So even when I lost my parents, I had someone to yearn for. But it was not a worldly tie. It was a like a dream that insist to stay. But slowly that dream also faded leaving a small trace, like a wash of gauche on the wasli paper. I saw her again in a foreign country, now well settled with a family. The reunion was really a happy one because we were not tied by any carnal emotions. It was pure earning of the souls. She spoke to me, after almost five decades in the same version of Punjabi that we used to talk in our village. It was a moment of ultimate happiness. Like children we laughed.
The second thing that makes Sidharth to philosophise his latest series is the very concept of it: I want to paint the people who had left strong impressions on me. There are thousands of people like that in my life. They represent the thousand feet and thousand hands. And isn’t it the same thing that we see in the Tankha paintings? Isn’t it the same thing that the Buddhist monks want to depict when they paint the image of Avalokiteswara with thousand hands and thousand feet? Isn’t he the embodiment of the world? Isn’t he the creator of multiplicity and the protector of the unity? I have a feeling that the visual rendition of a Buddha image or in that case, any iconic image comes as the distilled and condensed therefore potent embodiment of a long verbal concept. These ordinary people in my series also, each one of them, present a multitude thereby embodying my life in different ways.
Painting Tankha was like pure form of devotion and focusing for young Sidharth. Years passed by. Sidharth learnt the techniques of making natural colours out of stones, pebbles, leaves and insects. He was reliving what his mother had taught him back in the village. There was a difference between my mother’s teaching and that of the Buddhist monks in Dharmasala. Though my mother did show her devotion and care towards the leaves and stones, trees and insects, she never pronounced it in a ritualistic way. But in the Buddhist monastery, I was taught to ‘beg’ for colours from nature. It was a fantastic feeling and a moment of revelation. You go to pick up a leaf or a piece of soft stone and before you do that you ask the permission to the tree or to the mother earth. Shall I take it? Please give me. Taking colour away from earth was literally begging. Only when we feel that the earth has given us permission to pick it, we do it. When we grind the colours we chant the mantram, Om Mani Padme Hum, which has various interpretations in various languages; however, all interpretations evoke the purest feelings of peace and meditation.
In the meanwhile, the Dorji initiated Sidharth into the religious Buddhism. He tonsured his head and wore the deep brown unstitched clothe around his body. Now our Harjinder Singh wanted a suitable name. With his benevolent smile the Dorji asked Harjinder what name would have he preferred as a Buddhist monk. Sidharth looked at the Dorji, returned the smile, which was cunning in nature than innocent or we could say innocently cunning, and asked for the Dorji’s full name. The Dorji laughed loudly and said Harjinder was asking for a lot. Harjinder closed his eyes for a moment and opened to soon only to demand the name of Gautam Buddha. You are asking not less than the ultimate, the Dorji said. Finally, they settled for a name which was acceptable to everyone in the monastery- Sidharth.
Sidharth was a quick learner and an avid one too. He went deep into the various strands of Buddhism and Tantricism was one amongst them. Tantricism involved different kinds of ritual including worshipping a naked woman, having intercourse with her, taking in Satvik and Tamasik (Pious and Demonic) food and so on. Sidharth learnt it with the diligence of a young student and became one of the few Lamas who had come out of the course without deviating from the eight fold path prescribed paths by Buddha. For Siddharth, learning and practicing Tantric Buddhism was just a part of learning process. It was not going to be his life’s mission, he was sure. That was why he went back to his painting without thinking twice whether he should become a full time practitioner of Tantricism or a Buddhist lama who did Tankha paintings. The latter was his choice.
Life or destiny, you give it any name, it had some plans for Sidharth. It was not going to let Sidharth alone. He had watched this young woman in her early twenties coming and chatting up with the Dorji several times. Sidharth was not interested in women particularly. Many of them, especially the foreigners used to come to Dharmasala as tourists. Many of them came to learn Buddhism, some of them came as social and political activists, and yet another lot came to learn Tankha painting and yet another adventurous group of people was interested in seeking the course of Tantricism. Sidharth had seen them all. His life was moving around the Tankha paintings and his learning of Buddhism. He started studying different languages including Pali, Sanskrit, Persian and so on.
Vivienne was her name. She was young, fair complexioned and had sharp eyes. She showed determination and compassion at the same time. She had been asking the Dorji to teach her Tantric Buddhism. Perhaps, the senior Lama did not want to impart that knowledge to her. So he was finding ways to avoid her, often engaging her in other philosophical discourses. But she was adamant. She told the Dorji that she was not going to go away until he found out a way to teach her. The Dorji was very mischievous. He had a child like way of treating people. It was then I came into the room and the Dorji looked at me and said, Sidharth would teach you. I could not understand what was going on. I looked at the Dorji and Vivienne. She was smiling with real happiness.
The Dorji explained things to me. I was shell shocked. I was not intending to teach anything to anyone, remembers Sidharth. I wanted to wriggle out from the situation. I said I would teach Tantric Buddhism only to that woman who would be my wife. I did not know why I said so. I knew that I wanted to escape. I was aware of my age. I was hardly fifteen or sixteen years old then. And I was also sure that if I had talked about marriage, the white lady would have shied away from her plans. But to my shock I found she saying yes to me and to the Dorji. I was in a real fix. I looked at Dorji. Dorji was questioning this lady called Vivienne. So Vivienne, are you ready to take Sidharth as your man? She immediately said yes. I did not know she even had seen me before that. We were perfect mismatch. But something was happening.
Hence, Sidharth and Vivienne from Sweden became man and woman at that moment. The Dorji declared them man and woman. The documents were signed. And the Dorji was still smiling. Sidharth could feel that there was some trouble behind that ongoing smile. The Dorji called them by his side and said that as they were husband and wife and the monastery was only for the unmarried people it was illegal for Sidharth to stay back. It was time to leave. A few minutes before Sidharth was a happy Lama painting Tankhas and now suddenly he was a Tantric Teacher and a husband, without a roof above his head. He looked at Vivienne. She was full of confidence. She invited him to move in along with her in a comparatively expensive bungalow that she had rented for her stay.
Sidharth taught Vivienne. The course was successfully completed. Sidharth started loving this lady who had become a disciple and wife all of a sudden. Now it was time for her to go back to Sweden. She asked Sidharth to go with her. Sidharth did not have any worldly ties that would have held him back. He decided to go with her. Now as a Lama he was a citizen under the Tibetan government in exile. They made some travel documents for Sidharth, which was a temporary passport of kind made out of some brown papers, he remembers. Sidharth flew to Sweden with Vivienne.