Saturday, August 27, 2011
At Ram Kinkar’s Santiniketan: An Essay Plus Photo Feature
Had Ram Kinkar Baij been alive could he have got an assignment to do a monumental sculpture at the Terminal 3 in the Indira Gandhi International Airport? I ask this question myself and I don’t want to ask this to K.S.Radhakrishnan, who has been devoting all his time for the last three years in researching ‘Ram Kinkar Baij’ for the retrospective that he is curating at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi in January 2012. In fact, I don’t dare to ask this question to KSR (though most of the people in the Indian art scene address K.S.Radhakrishnan as ‘Radha’ or ‘Radha Da’ I prefer to address him ‘Radhakrishnan’ in our personal communications and when I write I use ‘KSR’ for K.S.Radhakrishnan) because the kind of sculptures and paintings that we see in the new T3 of the IGIA have already been discussed between us. Still, my roving mind itches to imagine things. Could there have been another ‘Yaksha- Yakshi’ as we see at the entrance of the Reserve Bank of India? Could there have been another ‘Santal Family’? Another ‘Mill Call’? Or, had Ram Kinkar been allowed, with his genuine witticism and humour could he have imagined a ‘Corporate Family’ or a ‘Call Centre Call’ instead?
I don’t know. But a second thought tells me that, had he been invited by the authorities to make one sculpture at the T3, Ram Kinkar Baij could have summarily rejected the offer, while sipping from his liquor bottle and fondling the cat purring around him. Ram Kinkar Baij did not care for name or fame. He was not seeking commission works. KSR tells me an anecdote: During the waning years of Ram Kinkar Baij, that is by the 1970s, he came to the class with a liquor bottle. For a puritan Santiniketanite it was a pure case of blasphemy. But none dared to ask him to go out of the campus. He just did not care because he had nothing to lose. He was a Khepa Baul; a free soul.’
In Santiniketan, at KSR’s new home ‘Mimeer Baadi’ (Mimi’s House named after KSR’s writer-painter wife Mimi) art historian, scholar, pedagogue and an expert of Bengal School, R.Sivakumar adds another anecdote: Most of the people know the image of an uncouth, anarchic Ram Kinkar Baij but that was not the ‘complete image’. Ram Kinkar was a very sensitive human being. He used to drink a lot but he was never drunk. He never abused anyone but he was amused by everyone. He had a tremendous sense of etiquette and decorum. But that was different from the colonial sense of etiquette. After the Yaksha Yakshi experience in Delhi, he was a bit down. He had several bitter experiences while executing the monumental sculptures of Yaksha Yakshi at the Reserve Bank in New Delhi. The experience had in a way shattered him. He dipped his despair in drinks. But he was never abusive.”
There is something cyclical about history; what goes around comes around, at times as blessings and at other times as curse. Now, at the T3 Delhi, in the American Express lounge, KSR remembers how he and Sivakumar, as two young students assisted Ritwik Ghatak and his crew members while they were shooting Ram Kinkar Baij in 1975. Two men, two highly charged spirits moved around the campus where his works were displayed and spoke at length. They shot for four days. Today, KSR is on the way to make a documentary on Ram Kinkar Baij. After thirty six years, the boy assistant is going to direct a documentary on his master and my role is that of an assistant; in script and production. “Ram Kinkar did not care,” KSR remembers. ‘Ghatak and Baij went to the villages around Santiniketan. At some point, Ghatak was so drunk that he slept on one of the narrow alleys with Ram Kinkar for company. Even the cycle rickshaw people did not dare to wake them up. So they took another route and let the filmmaker and sculptor enjoyed their sleep.”
In the Ritwik Ghatak film, ‘Ram Kinkar Baij- A personality Study’ (now available in Youtube), Ram Kinkar Baij speaks about the problems that he faces in his life. He speaks about how he has shielded his dripping roof with his oil paintings. An astonished Ghatak asks him what he is going to do for the show that is coming soon. To this question Ram Kinkar Baij answers genuinely: “As the paintings are made by oil on canvas water will not do any damage to them. I can pull them out for the show. But my worry is what I will replace them with to stop the rainwater. It costs hundred rupees to buy grass for thatching. It is very expensive.’ He did care for his ‘home’ and it did not mean that he did not care for his paintings or sculptures. His logic was different from the logic of the artists today. He was not creating works thinking that one day they would reach the auction houses or museums. He was an inspired soul and making works was like breathing for him.
Thirty one years after Ram Kinkar’s death, rain is a still a problem for him. Strewn across the sylvan campus of Santiniketan, Ram Kinkar Baij’s sculptures suffer from monsoon rains. ‘Harvester’ (Thresher) is a sculpture that most of the people see in its various bronze casts rather than the original. Even if someone visits Santiniketan, they would fail to notice the original as it stands today covered by weeds and thickets. But they do see the bronze version of it at the Uttarayan Complex next to the Tagore Museum in Santiniketan. In a modestly large plot , Uttarayan complex has the bronze casts of Sujata, Santal Family and Harvester.
The premises have a moderately big bungalow of Rabindranath Tagore as its focus. And there are several small houses spread around where Tagore lived at different ‘seasons’. “This was the last house where Tagore lived and when he fell sick he was taken to Calcutta in a Royal Saloon specially arranged by the Railways,” says Sivakumar. “He was a disturbed person throughout his life. He did not like staying in one place. These small houses with different kinds and sizes of windows, roof height and terraces, were specially made under Tagore’s instructions so that they would facilitate him to live in different ‘levels’ and experience life and nature.” Tagore’s car is preserved here as a museum piece and the mud house, ‘Shyamali’ is currently covered by plastic sheets as the Archaeological Survey of India has been doing the renovation of this building for some time. It is on the walls of this mud house, Ram Kinkar had initially tried some ‘tribal’ figures in relief forms whose resonances later we could hark in the monumental ‘Yaksha-Yakshi’ at the Reserve Bank of India, New Delhi.
Monsoon showers threaten the original sculptures of Ram Kinkar Baij, mostly done with iron armature supported concrete and latterite stones and gravel. Years back, recognizing how the rains are affecting these sculptures, Viswabharati University authorities had erected canopies over the original ‘Santal Family’ and ‘Mill Call’. These canopies, majestic with their iron pillars and asbestos roof now looks pathetic as the rains, uprooted trees and so on have damaged them considerably. The authorities are periodically informed of the situation with no result. Hierarchy in bureaucracy is one major problem that aggravates the decay of Ram Kinkar Baij’s outdoor sculptures. “We in Kalabhavana have been writing to authorities for a long time,” says Sivakumar who is also the head of the Art History Department of Kalabhavana. “Everything happens as per the hierarchy. When the paper moves from one section to the other and finally reaches to the engineers several monsoons must be over.”
Sivakumar feels that the monumental sculptures of Ram Kinkar Baij that have become the milestones in the modern Indian art in general and sculptures in particular, in due course of time will lose their structural qualities and eventually fall from their art historical status to mere ruins. “If you compare the bronze cast of the Santal Family there in the Uttarayan Complex and the original here in Kalabhavan campus you could differentiate between the structural and formal qualities. As the bronze was cast long back, the ‘surface quality’ of the original could be seen there. But the original, thanks to the onslaught of rains and winds, has been losing its textures. It has become brittle. Wasps make their nests and now thanks to the burning of these nests there are dark patches and holes in these sculptures. Someone has to take immediate action to save these sculptures.” “There has been a demand to make Santiniketan a Heritage Site. But we need to leave something to be preserved and protected,” says KSR. “This is a living museum and we need to respect each and every part of it,” he observes.
Ram Kinkar Baij, Ramanad Sagar and Lord Ram have one thing in common; their name Ram. But Ram Kinkar Baij had never imagined that Ramayana could do something wrong to his works. During 1980s when the Ramayana series was telecasted on Sundays in Doordarshan, a restorer was called to repair a damaged at the flowing tip of the Mill Call. The engineer and the restorer came. It was a Sunday and on Doordarshan Ramayana was ‘happening’. Which household had a television set then were literally worshipping that box during those two hours of telecasting. The restorer was an avid follower of the serial, Ramayana. As he was called to do his official duties on a Sunday with Ramayana blessing rest of the people in the country, our restorer decided to take revenge against the authorities. He just added some cement mixture at the broken part and giving a complete finish, leaving all those textural dimensions to sink in the polished layer of the cement!
“Ram Kinkar Baij is like an ocean,” KSR tells me. “If I work on him for another two years more materials will come out. More works will come out. I have been working on it for the last three years and all these while I have been getting newer works, suspected works, unpublished interviews, literature about Ram Kinkar and so on. Somewhere I need to create a logical end but with a possible and multiple openings for further research,” KSR continues. From the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose international airport to KSR’s apartment near the Birla Akademy there is a forty minutes drive. It could increase depending on the road conditions. Monsoon is still active in Kolkata. It drizzles. KSR asks the driver to roll down the window glasses and switch off air-conditioner. Rain drops touch our face. Oh Kolkata. Mamta Banerjee’s Kolkata!
Raajer Haat to Kolkata is what Gurgaon is to Delhi. Raajer Haat, which could be translated as ‘King’s Market’ and the vast plane land that lie on either side of the broad bypass road has been acquired by all the major companies and individuals in India. “Huge institutions are going to come here,” KSR tells me. He points out the housing complexes that are taking shape at the horizon line. People are going to come to this side soon. Kolkata will be old Kolkata in a few years time,” KSR observes. JCBs gnaw earth and put it on the waiting trucks. Clearing is happening very fast. Digging for the foundations has already been on. Destiny is playing a game of JCBs with the fate of Kolkata. At a distance on my right side KSR shows me a huge billboard that says ‘KMOMA’ (Kolkata Museum of Modern Art). Behind the billboard there is darkness and silence. Suddenly a host of glow worms fly across it. After a few years there will be standing India’s biggest museum of art here.
KSR’s apartment in Kolkata is a three bedroom flat. Rain sings outside. To ventilate the occasionally used apartment I open the widows. Darkness tinged with raindrops falls on my face. A few dogs barked at the lit windows of the flat as they are not familiar with light and human presence in this building.
Suvendu Chatterjee runs a group called ‘DRIK India’ in Kolkata. He is into producing audio-visual content for many agencies. Also DRIK India’ works with many non-governmental organizations for social causes. Sumeru would like to go by his first name. He is a writer, painter, publisher and above all a movie cameraman. He is tall, plump and all of thirty six years. He has curly hairs and he prefers to wear a very small straw hat on his head while shooting. He also publishes a little magazine called ‘Roop Chandi’. Shubho also is a young man with a small ponytail. He is a commerce graduate but does anything outside commerce. He is a production controller, editor, script writer, concept maker, project writer and so on. Joshi Joseph has been living in Kolkata for the last twelve years. He is the director of the Films Division India (Kolkata). Joshi is a writer, filmmaker and social activist. His four short films have won National Awards. Joshi supports Iron Sharmila’s fasting and has done a seventeen minutes film on her. His magnum opus still under production is the ‘Life and Works of Mahasweta Devi’. If Joshi believes in God, the form of that god is Mahashweta Devi. He travels with her quite often and has so far collected 300 hours of footage.
So here is our team. KSR and I have already created a shooting script. We discuss the script with the team and they are all inspired. Next morning, at the Howra Station we meet again. Looking at the crowd, KSR remembers Penn railway station in the US. People rush like animals when the train is announced. People behave in the same way at the railway stations, all over the world, KSR opines. At platform number 12 the Santiniketan Express has already arrived. We have our reservations in the A/C Chair car. Rabindranath Tagore smiles at me from the portraits stuck on the panels of the railway coach. I remember my journey to Santiniketan four years back in another train. A young boy displays his magical skills and vanishes into thin air. Later comes a young Baul singer. He sings beautifully. As he leaves the coach becomes silent again with the occasional rupturing of it with the dialogues of a young man sitting just behind me with his artificial accent. While the train pushes the landscapes behind out there, I settle down with a book.
Bolpur has become crowded. Santiniketan has become more of a tourist centre. Within four years things have changed drastically, I feel. KSR tells me that now to see Santiniketan you need to go to the inner villages. The corporate are buying out lands now. I remember reading Joshi’s interview with Mahasweta Devi. She had kicked a kuccha brick pillar down in a construction site as a protest against the illegal constructions happening in Santiniketan, for the benefit of the corporate houses. Later while sitting at the shores of the Kopai river, KSR says, “One day Kopai River will become the dividing line between Old and New Santiniketan. Old Santiniketan is in the process of becoming a ‘new’ township. The original feel of Santiniketan could now be seen only after crossing the Kopai river,” he says with sadness in his eyes. Then he looks at the pack of dogs standing around us and asks, “Do you know why dogs lick their balls?” I had heard its answer once from KSR himself. So I tell him, ‘That’s the way they think.” “No,” KSR objects in his hallmark style. I wonder how I had gone wrong in my answer as it was provided by him only a few years back. “Because they can do that,” KSR says. Against the setting sun there blooms the wild flowers of laughter along the Kopai shore.
We start our work on the very afternoon of our arrival (23rd August 2011). The light is not conducive to shoot the vertical sculpture titled ‘Lamp Stand’ before the main Santiniketan Building. So we move to the Tagore museum where the bronze cast of ‘Sujata’ is located. R.Sivakumar and his son, Siddharth join us. Siddharth has grown up into a smart and handsome young man. At the age of eighteen he is already a printer-publisher of a Magazine mainly publishing film studies articles. Tagore museum is under renovation. Then we proceed to the Uttarayan Complex and shoot Santal Family bronze and Harvester bronze. Sivakumar’s sound bytes recorded. In the same campus, along with Ram Kinkar Baij’s works, we could see the works of his two beloved disciples; A.Ramachandran and KSR. Rain clouds gather around. Sumeru is a happy man. He shoots the rain while it shoots us back to shelters. Standing at the veranda of Tagore’s house, with KSR and Sivakumar, I feel a time that was not mine but still lives in me as an integral part of my making.
On 24th August we are at the Prayer Hall of the Brahmos (Brahma Samajis), the glass house Tagore had built for prayers, at 6 am. Tuesday and Wednesday are holidays in Santiniketan. I ask KSR why? “Perhaps, Tagore wanted to break the norms of the world,” KSR tells me. Later I ask Sivakumar, who has been living in Santiniketan for the last thirty six years about this. “Hasn’t it created a problem to you?” “Obviously. It is a kind of jet lag when you even go to Kolkata by train,” Sivakumar says. “You reach a place different from Santiniketan on a Tuesday or Wednesday and you find everything going crazy around you as for them they are working days,” Sivakumar smiles. This is a Wednesday and we are lucky to have the prayer day falling on the same day. People come in their Wednesday best, which is mostly white in colour. Young boys come in white pyjama-kurta. Young girls come in white cotton sarees. They all look so innocent to my eyes. Aneesh who does his MA in Painting at Kalabhavana tells me, “Today they look like flowers. On working days, when they get together under the mango trees in their yellow uniform, they all look like bunches of ripe jackfruit just ripped out of the rough pod.” I want to give a kiss to Aneesh for that simile.
Sharmila Pomot, one of the prominent Rabeendra Sangeet singers joins us after the prayer for a shoot. When Ram Kinkar Baij was alive, he used to ask Sharmila to sing certain songs for him. A young Sharmila used to oblige. KSR decides to shoot her singing under the same trees where Ram KInkar had sit with Sharmila and the same songs, which he had asked her to sing. Sharmila sings it soulfully. She has been doing singing Rabeendra Sangeet for almost four decades now. She lives in Paris and Peter Brooke when he did Mahabharata, chose Sharmila Pomot to sing the opening song. Later I saw her buying vegetables for the day from a local shop. Every person has an ordinary and fantastic life; perhaps life is something that has both these elements rolled together.
After the music performance documentation, we proceed to document all the site specific works inside the Kalabhavana campus. Mill Call, Santal Family, Buddha and Sujata. Sumeru has a tough time in climbing on the scaffolding to get the details. We are afraid that the scaffolding would crumple under the weight of a heavy Sumeru. Buddha, thanks to its location near to girls’ hostel has left no room for a three dimensional shoot. From whichever angle you see it, this monumental Buddha looks two dimensional. Sumeru has some ideas for artificially lighting it but KSR does not want to give any special effect to this sculpture. He wants it to be as raw as the sculpture’s surface and its present condition.
One of the final works of Ram Kinkar Baij is right inside the campus of the Girls’ hostel. The hostels are named ‘Goenkalaya’, ‘Birlalaya’ and so on as per the name of the donors. The boulevard is so fascinating. On the onside you have these hostels and on the other, the university stadium. “By night nine o clock, this pathway becomes like a railway platform,” says Aneesh with a cunning smile on his face, “with several young boys seeing off their girlfriends to their respective hostels. They look anxious like those relatives of the young passengers who leave home for the first time.” KSR walks into the premises of the hostel followed by me, with the security guard on our trail. We wait for the matron to give us permission to shoot and she looks at us carefully and nods her head in agreement. I have noticed one thing, none could outtalk KSR.
The image of this sculpture is a combined form of two buffaloes in a lotus pond. Their tails move like two fishes. This is a combination of two beings: buffalo and fish. They intertwine to create a vertical movement and also are interspersed with a lotus like forms. Together this work is created as a fountain. Ram Kinkar, when asked by Ghatak, why he combined these two elements together answered that he had once seen a buffalo lying in a pond with its tail splashing the water. It looked like two disjointed elements acting together; a buffalo and a fish. It was simply a tail but Ram Kinkar found it the possibility of morphing these elements together.
By evening we go to visit the Gopalpada village nearby. The village people know KSR. They greet him with reverence. We enter into a cluster of huts and see the cleanliness with which they have maintained the place. I get a de javu feeling. I have been here once, I think. But I am not able to locate exactly when. Then I remember riding bicycle with Reji Arakkal and Swapna Biswas all over these places. We had gone to several places, we had seen so many people and we had seen so many trees and animals. I had seen a spring embracing a forest and earth covering her breasts in shame. I tell this to KSR and he smiles. We drive down to the Kopai River. There we have tea at the river bed.
On 25th August 2011 morning, we let the crew to go on their own to shoot the villages for stock shots. By 8 am KSR comes to pick me up from Monorama Hotel where I stay. We sit at Kalabhavana canteen and drink tea. Time stands still here in Santiniketan. Some foreigners amble in. They look at all of us and I feel that they look at us as if we too were from Tagore’s time and we are eternal display objects in a site specific museum. Behind us there are two buildings; one covered with the black and white mural of K.G.Subramanyan. And the other one is ‘master moshai’ Nandlal Bose’s studio. The walls of this studio are exposed to the elements and are prone to decay. Luckily, the exterior of this studio will be now protected by a mural by K.G.Subramanyan made up of mosaic tiles. This will be a double tribute to the master moshai; on the one hand his most celebrated student, K.G.Subramanyan would do a mural on this building and on the other, the walls will be protected by the mosaic tiles mural.
Some students want to show their works to me. I have time to visit their studios as the crew would take a couple of hours to come back to resume shooting at Ram Kinkar’s studio (now MFA Sculpture Studio) with his small works picked up from the Kalabhavana museum collection. I visit their studios, see their works and say some comments. The studios are just inadequate. The painting studios are just less than ten feet by ten feet squares. I go to the boys’ hostel to see some works and then pay a visit to the washroom there. The students live in absolute filth and stench. Hygiene is the last thing the authorities care for here, it seems.
Santiniketan takes a great pride in Tagore’s legacy. With CPM accepting Tagore and now Mamta Banerjee skilfully using Tagore legacy for political mileage, Bengal need to take a relook at the affairs of Santiniketan, especially Kalabhavana. While preserving Kalabhavana and the premises around it as envisioned by Tagore and conserving the whole of it as a site specific museum, new facilities for students should be established elsewhere in Santiniketan itself. New architecture that does not disturb the philosophy and policy of Santiniketan could be developed for studios, class rooms and hostels. Could someone imagine that Kalabhavana students do not have access to internet facilities in the campus?
Before we leave, KSR takes us to one place that he considers very important in his life. This is the house of the noted sculptor, Sarbari Roy Choudhury. Afflicted by Parkinson’s disease, Sarbari Roy Choudhury is now home bound. KSR and Roy Choudhury used to share a very special relationship between them. “When I went to Santiniketan, Sarbari Da was a teacher there. He liked me a lot and we used to be together most of them time. If he is riding a cycle, I will be there at the pillion. People even thought that we have some kind of gay relationship,” KSR laughs. “But for me my master was Ram Kinkar Baij. I thought, when Sarbari Daa knew that I am more into the Ram Kinkar Baij School, he would be hurt. But he was not. He was very encouraging. When I wrote ‘To my Guru, Ram Kinkar Baij’ in the opening page of dissertation, I thought Sarbari Da would be hurt. But he was not. He is a great human being. Sivakumar and myself used to spend endless hours at his house as he had a tremendous collection of music. May be he is one of the biggest music collectors in India. We used to joke that Sarbari Da even looked into anybody’s pocket just to know whether he has a cassette with him or not,” KSR remembers.
Sarbari Roy Choudhury holds KSR’s hands. He wants to speak a lot. He is now hard at hearing. KSR has to lean each time to tell things into his right year. Like a child Sarbari Da calls ‘Radhooo’. We all felt something held up in our throats. Our eyes moisten. He runs his shivering fingers through KSR’s long beard and calls, ‘Radhooo’. Through gestures and limited words he tells KSR that he would like to do a portrait sculpture of KSR. KSR also chokes for a moment. He takes up Sarbari Roy Choudhury’s right hand in his hands. He caresses it. A very touching moment that I would never forget in my life.
The shooting continues with Ram Kinkar Baij’s small sculptures taken out from the Kalabhavana museum. By 2 pm we wrap up the shoot and get ready to travel back to Kolkata. While travelling back, KSR and I have this satisfaction of completing things as per our shooting schedule. While negotiating the bumpy roads from the back seat of a new Tata Indigo car, the question of Santiniketan’s present situation bounces back to my mind. Frozen in time, Santiniketan gives a picture perfect impression. Rickshaw pullers who double up as tourist guides mis-guide visitors by filling up them with concocted stories around Ram Kinkar’s works. At least the Rickshaw pullers care for stories and they reinvent them every day. Do the authorities care to re-invent Santiniketan for good?
(All photographs except the ones featuring JohnyML are taken by JohnyML)