Thursday, October 27, 2011
Baroda and the Fine Arts Faculty: To My Children Series 23
Today when I drive through the roads of Baroda I feel a strange sensation. The streets looks strange, alien and I feel a great disconnect. When I was a student here I was very much connected to these streets though I did not have too many friends. Those friends I had were very good people and they entertained me as much as they could and in turn I used to entertain them with my poems, songs, mimicry and a bit of intellectual talk. Perhaps, when you are drunk, intellectuals stuff gives way to the popular things. If it is a Malayali crowd, I would say Marxism gives way to old Malayalam songs, that too romantic ones. Everyone likes a good Malayalm romantic song, the way Bengalis always like a Rabindra Sangeet irrespective of location, time and space. Today I have a lot of friends in Baroda and the level of hospitality has increased quite high too. But still I feel a strange disconnect.
As I mentioned in the previous chapter, my second coming to Baroda was on a rainy day. I did not know where to go and the places that I knew were the boys’ hostels and Shibu Natesan’s place in Nizampura. When I went there first, after almost escaping from a pressing situation in Kerala, it was the peak of summer. Shibu was always busy with his works and social engagements and he got time to meet me only after the night fall. He had taken me to one of the boys’ hostels where T.V.Chandran and Manoj stayed. T.V.Chandran was expected to submit his dissertation in the Art History department and was supposed to leave on the next day in an early morning train in which he had a seat reserved. So he asked me whether I could go to the department and hand over the dissertation to one of the teachers there. I happily agreed. Hence even before becoming a student in the fine arts faculty officially I had this great opportunity to submit a dissertation there, though it was by T.V.Chandran. His dissertation was on the face painting of Teyyam performers from the North Kerala. Today T.V.Chandran teaches Art History at the Trivandrum Fine Arts College and publishes art historical articles in journals.
Left alone in middle of a city that was absolutely strange to me then, often I found myself sleeping or wandering around. I was desperate in several ways and Manoj was the only friend I had. He was a very friendly guy with some sort of odd behaviour. We stayed in somebody’s room on a second floor in the hostel. Often we saw thousands of bed bugs travelling out of the room once the iron beds got really heated up in the unbearable heat of the summer sun. None bothered to kill them. If they killed them they came back in hoards with some kind of vengeance. So I spent my vacant hours counting bed bugs and studying their behaviour while listening to the stories of Baroda recounted by an equally disturbed soul like Manoj.
Manoj was a student in BFA sculpture and when I met him was either rusticated from the department or was undergoing some kind of punishment for not depositing his dues or something like that. He wandered around in his khakhi corduroy pants and a T-shirt whose colour was violet once upon a time. He often gnashed his teeth as if he was venting his ire against some invisible forces. And on his skin I found several round patches which were the scars of burning. Someone later told me that he had the tendency to torture himself and he placed hot coins on his skin in order to ‘heal’ himself.
In one of his stories Manoj recounted how he was forced to live in other people’s rooms and how he had to subsist on other’s charity. He used to a great reader of the Russian literature translated in Malayalam and was quite popular in Kerala. And he spoke in a language that resembled the language translation. So he said: “One day I was coming back to my room after having tea from a roadside shop. It was a full moon night. Nothing was moving. All the students had gone to sleep. In the corridor, with a forty watt bulb layering everything with an eerie hue and letting long shadows of iron bars and grills falling along the corridor, I saw myself standing. I did not have the key to my room. The warden had locked up my room with a different lock as I had not fill in my dues. All my possessions were inside the room. So I entered the room from the balcony. I sneaked in through the backdoor and to my shock I found out that all my things were taken away by the warden. Since then I am left with this one pair of clothes.”
One day Manoj took me to the post office and that day he looked extremely happy. I knew, from his innumerable stories, how he celebrated when his father sent money via money order. We were there at the post office to collect his money sent by his father. There were a lot of girls standing at the counter. The clerk asked him to sign a receipt. To take out his pen, Manoj pushed his right hand into his pocket. And while taking it out, with a loud thud something fell on the floor and all the girls started giggling. My attention too was focused on the object that fell from his pocket with a rather metallic noise. It was a barber’s equipment- an old form of battery driven haircutter. It looked like miniature tiller. The girls were laughing at it! Manoj gnashed his teeth and with a studied movement he picked it up and kept it back inside his sagging pocket. Later on he told me that he used this machine to cut the hairs of all those ‘successful’ artists who resided in Baroda and to this service they offered him some money, food and good company.
Manoj was quite a Lacanian. He wanted to see how others saw him, through his own eyes. The legends of Baroda say that Manoj was in love with a girl who was not in love with him at all. He thought that she was in love that was why she was ignoring him. One day he was sitting at the steps of the old building in the faculty and the girl came from a distance and he thought that she was looking at him. When the girl passed by without giving any damn to the royal presence of our hero, he made another guy to sit in the same place where he was sitting and he went to that point from where the girl walked and assessed how she might have ‘framed’ him from that distance! He was a very happy presence and for me he was very soothing in my loneliness. We spent our afternoons, lying on the lawn around the huge Banyan Tree sculpture made by Nagji Patel at a traffic island in Baroda. It was with Manoj I left for Kerala to meet Kalapana. At Kannoor railway station we parted ways and I have never met him till date.
When I reached Baroda on the second time it was monsoon. The city was facing flood situation and many places were already submerged. Luckily I got an auto and went straight to Shibu’s place. To my shock I found his house was surrounded by water till the doorstop. There was a neem tree right in front of the house and around it there was a raised cemented platform. It was already dark and none was seen around. Hoping that Shibu would come back soon I waged through the water, climbed on the platform and sat there, waiting impatiently for Shibu. It was growing darker and I found myself marooned like a shipwrecked sailor in the middle of the vast expanse of water. I lit a cigarette and smoked without taste and a sense of growing fear. Suddenly from a distance, across the ground which now looked like a still lake, on the terrace of a three storied building I saw the glimpse of an ember burning. Someone was standing there and smoking.
“Yo....man....Is that Johny?” a voice came with a thick accent. I recognized the voice. It was the voice of Moses, a Kenyan student studying law or some other subject. He stayed across the ground in front of Shibu’s place and once in a while he came to have a drink and chat with Shibu. He had seen me in my previous visit and had befriended me.
“Yes, its me,” I hollered back. He told me that he was coming. I felt relieved. I saw the ember flickering down through the stairs and coming towards me.
Like the mythical Moses he came, wading through the water, parting it into either side. He was minus large mane and beard and for a staff he had an umbrella in his hand.
He took me to his home where his girlfriend served me with a cup of hot tea. After a while, Moses took me to the MA Hall of the boys’ hostel.
I don’t remember the room number. But I remember each and every face there. Shibu Natesan was sitting on the cot, grinning. So was Alex Mathew. Final year MA students Salim and Gopan Perumbada was also there. Antony Karal, Baiju Kurup and several others were sitting. Many of them I was seeing for the first time. Gopan was cooking something in a pressure cooker. Salim was smoking. Perhaps, everyone in the room was either smoking or drinking. Through the curtain of smoke and mirth I saw the glowing faces of my friends and future associates.
Moses handed me over to Shibu. I thanked Moses for all the help. Then someone extended a glass filled with some drink to me. Even without asking what it was I bottomed it up into my mouth. Strong rum burnt its own way through my innards. Someone handed over a cigarette to me. I dragged it. Something exploded in my head. I was grinning like everyone else in the room. Someone was singing. Many were chatting. In the growing din I too talked, sang and had several rounds of drinks and smoke. Things were welling up in me. I wanted to vent them out. I knew the topography of the hostels from my previous visit. I rushed to the bathroom area. Standing in front of a series of washbasins and mirrors I puked. Things flowed out of me. My past, my ignorance, arrogance, vanity and everything. I raised my head and looked at the mirror. There, a different man was standing with his moustache and beard drenched in the foul syrups of past. I could not wash my face and bring the new being out before that with a big bang I collapsed on the floor. I could see a thousand watt bulb flashing and going dark inside my head.
It must be after half an hour or so when I woke up. Around ten anxious faces were hovering above me. And I could focus them one by one. Zooming and out. And when they saw me trying to recover from the shock of falling, they too felt relieved. “We heard a big noise and when we came there you were lying like a heap on the floor,” Shibu told me later. “Then we together carried you back to the room.” I got up and drank again, my fear was gone. I felt like a new person and I was ready to face Baroda.
As a student of the Art History Department of Fine Arts Faculty I don’t have much to say. Most of my experiences are outside classrooms. Even after officially getting admitted there at the art history department, I was not allotted a hostel room. I was living with my friends in the hostel. I was experiencing the ‘Gujarati’ and ‘pujabi’ dals in the hostel mess. In the meanwhile I got one of the cycles abandoned by the previous students from under the staircase of the hostel and got it repaired. One day Shivji Panicker who was one of the teachers in the department asked me whether I could stay in a house outside the campus. The owner of the house was a famous dancer and he was going on a foreign tour for two months. And during those days he needed someone to be at home, take care of it and keep it functional. So it was a mutual arrangement. I immediately grabbed on the offer and started living in that house.
It was a good house though I don’t feel, today, attached to that house at all. Shivji used to come and visit me there once in a while and I used to make tea for him. Sometimes he talked of his gay inclinations. He used to be a great friend in the beginning. Somehow we fell apart as time progressed. I questioned several of his ideas and he disliked me to the core as I was not following his ideas. Ratan Parimoo was my teacher. He was a great teacher and a great guide. He had single handedly built the archives of the Art history department. Though he was a teacher of conventional art history I liked the way he developed methodology and tried us to guide through the difficult areas of art history. If you ask me who was my teacher I would say without any doubt, it was Ratan Parimoo. Deepak Kannal was another teacher who was not so close to me. But when a Gujarati Encyclopaedia was in preparation he asked me to write an article on Cholamandal or something and it was my first major ‘art historical’ writing, which got published in fact in Gujarati language, though till date I have not seen that publication.
The first year in Baroda was rather difficult for me though I had several friends. N.S.Harsha was my batchmate. So was Arun Kumar H.G. I was desperately looking for a girl friend not because I lacked friends but because I wanted something more. So I started looking around for girl friends. Other friends used to tell me that having a girl friend is one important thing in Baroda. My hunt for girl friends was rather silent one. I dipped my despair in books, cigarettes, smoking weeds, drinking cheap liquor and so on. One day when none was around there in the archives I asked one girl from some other department whether she could go with me for a cup of tea. She looked at me and walked out of the archives. That was the end of my asking someone out. I thought I was an utter failure with girls. Especially my past history made me think totally hopeless and ineffective. The more I thought low of myself the more I engaged myself in reading and then smoking. In between I thought I was in love with a girl from the senior batch. And later on I came to know that she fell ill knowing that. I felt so sick of hearing all these.
By the end of the first year I was sure that there was no hope for me in the case of having girl friends. It was time to think about dissertation and by then I was looking like a desperate bohemian with long beard and hairs. I chose 1970s art scene in Kerala as my dissertation topic. Cholamandal, the artist village was one of the areas of studies for me. I decided to travel and make use of the vacation time in doing my dissertation. It was during this time the first year students went for a study trip in Sarnath, Sanchi and Konark. I too joined the team. While in Konark, I realized that I was not interested in art history at all because I was not understanding a thing that the teacher was telling us. I tried to focus on things but the more I tried the more I became depressed. By night when the team decided to unwind on a river bank with cheaply available drinks and songs under a full moon sky, I was already high on my desperation. I drank a lot and went off. Some students helped me back to the bus, then to the inn where we were staying. In between, inside the bus, one girl came and asked me whether I needed any help and she offered me some soft drinks. Her name was Mrinal Kulkarni.
Mrinal Kulkarni was my classmate. I had not particularly noticed her. She was always with the gang of a few that included Jayaram Poduval, Monal Iyer and Abha Seth. They were always together. I kept away from this gang because they had been together for almost six years and I was a new comer. I never had any particular interest in Mrinal at that time. But before I left for the first year vacation I saw her coming towards the art history department and I was standing somewhere up in the first floor. I looked at her. She was wearing a blue skirt and check shirt tucked in. Later I saw her near the steps of the art history department where Jayaram’s gang always sat. While leaving the place I asked her when she was coming after the vacation. She said something and that was the only communication I had with her.
Second year started with a different note. I had worked very hard and travelled to Chennai to collect my data. And also I had the opportunity to meet several living artists and interview them. When I went back to Baroda I was all set to become a focused student. Hemant Singh Arimbam from Manipur was my best friend in the class. He was very soft spoken and always seen with a smile on his lips. One day I told him that I wanted ask Mrinal whether she could come with me for a cup of tea and whether he could accompany me. He smiled and told me that I could do it on my own. With a trembling heart I asked Mrinal to go out with me to Kaakki’s larry, a makeshift tea shop run by an old woman and her husband. We went and had tea.
Then on a rainy day, I asked her whether she could meet me out near the Kamati Garden. She said yes. I was waiting for the rain to stop and the evening to come. Most of the place was water logged. As the rain was not abating I decided to go in the rain and meet her. As cycle would be a handicap, I decided to walk. She was waiting for me at the steps of her hostel. She saw me coming towards her with rolled up jeans and wet shoes. She smiled at me and I smiled at her. Then together we stepped into the water and continued our walking.
Plague. It started off in Surat, people said. It was coming towards Baroda. People were panicking. Students gathered around and discussed the situation. The hostel wardens ordered for fumigation and cleaning up of hostel premises. By the time most of the students were leaving for other parts of the country. It was said that the students coming from Gujarat were stopped at the state borders and checked them for carrying viruses. It was then Gopan Perumbada, then a final year sculpture student stepped in. He made some magical declarations and said that he is going to have a ‘havan’ (sacrifice with fire) that evening at the faculty of fine arts. He made special arrangements for it. What he did was this: He brought some anti-virus tablets, of course after consulting certain doctors, and threw them on fire and the fumes came out of it cleaned up the air. Or we believed it. Next morning everyone was asking for Gopan. But by that time Gopan had crossed the Gujarat bordered in the first available train with his help and friend, Babu.
Love in the times of plague. We decided to stay back. In a deserted city of Baroda myself and Mrinal and people like us stayed back to brave the attack of plague. We braved the disease because we were in love. And we got ample amount of time for ourselves to know each other. As the intensity of the love affair increased, my meetings with other friends became less frequency or were all postponed to late nights. They approved of my love only because I was hopeless in the first year. Many could guess who was my girl friend was even without me telling her name to them mainly because Mrinal was the only other girl who did not have a boy friend all these years. As time passed, our meetings were extended to Kamati Garden, a huge garden mainly used by the lovers, joggers and voyeurs. And we did all we could do sitting on the park benches shrouded either by darkness or by Mrinal’s chunni.
Love is blind and next to no logic. That’s why we decided to leave our hostel rooms and decided to live in a separate house rented in Baroda. What prompted us to do this was up to anyone’s guess. Some benevolent friends used to give us their houses when they left the city for few days. And during desperate occasions we had saved money to check in a hotel, that too right in front of the gate of the boys’ hostel. Years later, when I checked in the same hotel, I opened the room with a smile on my lips. For this room, once upon a time, we had struggled a lot.
Mrinal also used to ride a cycle. So one day we rode to the outskirts of the city looking for a good place to live. And finally we found out of near Sama. Still I am clueless about this particular building. The landlord decided to rend it out to us for five hundred rupees or something. It was quite a lot of money at that time. We looked at each other and agreed. Then there was a frantic search for arranging things for a functional house. Once we moved in that place we were already tired. But physical proximity made us forget the hardships of life. And I never thought once why we took this step. But one day we were forced to think about our foolishness. As we were forced to look out for kerosene, vegetable and so on, we asked ourselves why we did this move. And one day without telling anyone, in an afternoon, while everyone was taking a nap, we bundled up the things on our cycle carriers and rode away from the place. We rode so fast that even a car chasing us could not have stopped us. Back in hostel, we felt so happy. We became normal again. But the hardship that we faced at Sama was just a beginning. We were destined to face a lot more in the coming days.
You may ask why I did not write anything about my studies. There is nothing much to talk about it. I have always been a good student and with a very inquisitive mind and reading capacity. Even through the direst of situations I had kept myself focused on studies. There were no pending assignments or failure in class projects. I came out with a first class. And if you ask me what exactly I learned from the Art History department of Baroda, I would say I learned a lot from my fellow students, from the artists who lived in the city, from the city itself, from the mess boys, from the chai larry wallahs, from all those people who neglected me, who supported me, loved me , hated me and so on. The archives and library were a great help in my studies. Also I was seriously involved in the film club movement in the faculty and on the first year I was the secretary of the film club. I remember myself and Baiju Kururp travelling to Pune to procure a few movies and carrying the film box to the bus stand and to the faculty. Also I was introduced to Hindi films and Hollywood movies in a big way. We watched a lot of Hollywood movies in Baroda, almost one in a week. And a lot of blue films that the boys in the hostel showed religiously on Saturday nights in one of the common rooms. My education was very good in Baroda.