Thursday, March 31, 2011
I like cricket. But I don’t say, ‘I am loving it’. To be precise, I used to like this game. I used to spend several hours before a television set with an archetypal shape (note: Photography artist, Alex Fernandes is very keen to differentiate between archetypes and stereotypes. For him, according to Jungian theories, archetype is a ‘racial mind’ that determines the cultural coding of a race in unique embodies forms).
What is the archetypal shape of a television? It should be a rectangular box, with a picture tube on its right and a control panel (knobs and switches) on its left. Any set that did not have this shape, during those days, was not worthy to be called a television set. Interestingly, back in village, when I got my first television set during mid 1980s, something called ‘core’ model’ was already in the market. But I resisted my parent’s wish to buy a ‘core’ model because core model, popularized by the ONIDA Company had a picture tube on the top and control panel down below and together it made a perfect square. I hated this core model as it was not confirming my belief on an archetypal television set. Today with wafer thin plasma screens on your walls, you must be wondering about that Jurassic age in which I got introduced to cricket.
During those days, the fame of a cricketer was not based on the brands that they used to endorse. Within the protected economy of our country, in fact we did not have too many brands to boast. Lalita ji talked about the power of Surf, Dancing girl endorsed Nirma, Colagate was by some unknown model, Sangeeta Bijlani came in Garden Vareli sarees, Sunil Gavaskar endorsed Dinesh Mills and all the other famous cricketers, if they were lucky to have some extra money, advertised interesting products like Vicks, Glycodin, Palmolive and so on. Nirodh, the nationalized and nationalistic condom had unrecognizable stereotype of a happy husband and wife who looked like using abstinence in bed than condoms. They were not like the maid servants made out of sex sirens who go wild while finding a used condom’s cover or a macho underwear in a bucket of dirty clothes.
With not many things to do in a village, I used to spend a lot of time watching cricket. And I used to remember the players not by their nationality but by their mannerisms. David Boon was one with a handle bar moustache and a beer belly. His presence in lemon yellow squad uniform used to bring cheer to anybody’s mind irrespective of the nationalities to which they belonged. Vivian Richard was a man to see; running from the pavilion end, he comes like a storm and bowls over not only the wickets but too many minds (though Neena Gupta went a few steps ahead in fielding him). We, the kids then used to think that Viv Richards chewed raw beef on the ground to gain energy (in fact he was relentlessly working on his wads of chewing gum). Imran Khan, the lion of Pakistan, Wasim Akram, Miandad, Courtney Walsh.. Then came the younger lot, Inzamam -ul- Huq, Sachin Tendulkar. We thought we belonged to this game called cricket.
Look at Kapil Dev, the rawness of a Jat transforms into the joviality of player who is ultimately focused on to his game. There was something about this man that made us feel one with him; like we felt one with Amitabh Bhacchan. The cool dude of the day, Ravi Shastri- every young man secretly envied him whenever he wore his shades. Sunil Gavaskar, he was the tallest amongst the order both in skill and presence. Dilip Wengsarkar- that man smiled like a fresh morning. Srikanth- he had this eternal mannerism of shrugging his shoulders and wrinkling the muscles around his nose. He flipped the handle of the willow between his palms, struck the wicket for a few moments, once again flipped the bat, shrugged the shoulders and looked straight into the ball. There it goes- a six. Mohinder Amarnath- the gentleman with a pensive smile in his eyes. Chetan Sharma, the pacer of all times. Manider Singh, the coolest spinner. Navjot Singh Siddu- scandals did not deter him from playing good cricket. A pair of sharp eyes piercing out of the helmet- that was Siddu. We never knew he could join BJP and make us laugh like anything. Wahe Guru. Narendra Hirvani played a couple of seasons, then became an eternal image in Mile Sur Mera Tumara. I cannot forget Saurav Ganguly, the man who came with a very thin moustache then when he became ‘dada’, he started looking like Amartya Sen. Then the one and only Azharuddeen with his upwardly tilted collar.
This was the case of Tennis also. Wimbledon became a household name. We learned the words like clay court and grass court. In village we had both clay and grass, only the court was missing and those flying little skirts. We learned the terms like Duce, set, match point and so on. Andre Agassi became a friend. Mc Enroe was on his way out. Navratilova was like a next door aunty. Then came our own Boris Becker with his blonde eye lashes and strong thighs. Pete Sampras was smiling like Pierce Brosnan (though he came late). The one and only Steffi Graff came and power house Gabriela Sabattini played for us. Then the black gems came; Venus and Serena Williams. Then I lost interest. Navratilova was known to me not for the studs she wore, nor was Steffi ruled my imaginations for her cool quotient. It was pure game and its visuals. Who cares now Sania Mirza supports India or not (many, though)?
My generation was not watching games and identifying with players for their fame but for their game. If India played bad in a game we booed them out. Javgal Srinath- Anil Kumble pair was the last one aroused such admiration beyond nationality. Then everything became the branding and endorsement game. As a newspaper reader I know the following things: Yuvraj Singh goes around with this or that Bollywood girl. Dhoni’s hair is styled by this or that guy. The sherwani that Sehwag wore on a particular dinner was designed by so and so. Sreesanth danced with Shah Rukh Khah. Murali Karthik goes for every party in Delhi. And I don’t know their game at all though I get a taste of the games that they play to be in the team. They say pacer Harbhajan Singh has a Hummer. Hummer no Humming.
Memories are coming back to me. I cannot forget Dulip Mendis, Arjun Ranathunga, Malcom Marshall, Hans Cronje….my god .. I remember all of them. The way they play, the way they behaved in the field. I can even see during the drink break, they all coming together around the van to pat each other and crack a few jokes. Those things were not scripted and enacted. They were not clinical games. They were games where man and mind showed their best combination. Today, everything is scripted (including the winning and losing) like the Script of ‘Chak De India’. I love Shahrukh Khan and I deem him as an icon of my generation but I hate him deeply for doing Chak De India and the same year investing in Kolkata Knight Riders for IPL. He disproved his name as a Khan by doing it. Look Sachin Tendulkar till date has not endorsed a liquor product.
The whole idea about writing this piece was not to jog my memories on sports and games. On the contrary, I wanted to express my dejection; my dejection on the kind of apathy that our people show towards others while this hopelessly scripted commercial venture called cricket is on. Yesterday (on the day of the India-Pak semi final on 30th March 2011) I had a medical emergency at home. I had to rush my son to a medical facility for small injury at his foot. My wife and myself took our son from one doctor to another. We visited most of the private clinics and hospitals in the vicinity and not a single doctor was available on duty! We saw a few parents like us frantically going from one place to another till all of us reached a hospital in the neighborhood where a young doctor was sitting amongst a group of patients and watching cricket patiently. Thank god, he agreed to see us.
I don’t want to go into the analysis of this issue. But I would like to say that it is a heinous crime from the doctors that amounts to homicide. They are professionals supposed to give medical care to people. They have vowed by Hippocrates on that. They cannot leave their duty whether it is Indo-Pak war or cricket.
I don’t buy this ‘they/we too are human beings’ line of argument.
When you are a doctor, life of a human being is your prime responsibility than your momentary arousal of Eros by watching a sixer by a tail ender in the Indian cricket team.
Sunday, March 27, 2011
She calls me once in a while. She speaks to me about her projects. She would like to do shows and she needs my help for that. She is now seventy five years old. A Santiniketan alumnus, she too had her days of glory in 1970s. Time brought changes into her life. With the growing responsibilities as a wife and mother, art took a backseat and she even forgot that she had a great run in the field of art. Then one day she felt that she could do it again. Her contemporaries were now famous people; they met her at the exhibition openings and they exchanged polite greetings that polite people learned politely in the polite circles. She was never invited to the parties and her former friends refused to come to her house parties on gloomy Saturday evenings. The party was happening elsewhere.
Sitting at the window, looking pensively at the yellowing leaves of a neem tree out there across the road, she told me that she wanted to do her exhibition. I could hear the unsaid: ‘before I die’. I looked at the old paintings from 1970s that she had taken out from the attic to show me. They were not exceptional and not particularly appealing to me. But they exuded the charm of the decade when she was young, beautiful and successful. Success brings beauty too, I thought. Then, failure should bring ugliness too. Failed people are ugly not because they are bad looking but because the failure sucks all the charms away from their faces. She was not looking ugly but I could say desperation had made channels on her forehead and cheeks. They no longer had the pink sheen that goes with the image of successful women.
I looked at the works that she had been currently working. They were semi-abstracts, with the suggestion of a woman in bondage. In some of the paintings, she had made unsuccessful attempt to portray herself as a queen. In some other works, she was too lyrical and the gardens and ponds seen in them became the real reflections of her aspirations. I knew what she wanted; she wanted recognition. She wanted meaning to her life. Her son had gone to the US to pursue his successful career as a ‘you-know-it-well’ software engineer. She was proud of her son and she was happy about her daughters who are successfully married and settled in their lives. But she was terribly alone with a retired husband involving only in community affairs, news channels and share market.
She needed recognition the way a dying man needed oxygen. In the due course of time, her husband had achieved wealth and they had set up a beautiful home. Everything was there; beautiful and exotic lampshades, vibrant curtains, folk and traditional wares at every corner of the houses, some affordable art pieces, a good library, huge imported plasma television, leather covered sofas, incense burners, soft music and what not. She had her own studio; easels, canvases, colors, reference books and a lot of despair and loneliness.
She told me to help her in organizing her show. I had my own reservations about her works. But I could not say anything to her. I spoke at length about the contemporary art practices, I delved a bit into the local gossips, which I found her enjoying thoroughly. I smiled at her and told her, before leaving her studio after having a few cups of differently flavored teas from different parts of the world, that I could help her in introducing her works to someone who to took a fascination for the kind of her works. She felt sad. She told me in a tone that I failed to fathom its depth that she did not want anyone to ‘buy’ her works. She wanted to show. She wanted me to write her catalogue. She wanted me to get her ‘at least a few good words’ from people who had totally forgotten herself as an artist and a human being. “I too am a human being and an artist,” she told me as I stepped into my car.
This is not an odd example. I have seen so many old people (people become old the day feel they are out of the loop of events and nobody confides them anymore on anything. People become old once they render them useless or others make them feel useless, even if they are just twenty four years old) feeling out of place in everywhere or sorrowfully taking part in parties and events to which they get some occasional invitations through a friends friend. I have observed these old people and have tried my best to put my feet into their shoes and think about what they feel at that particular moment of being a prop than a being. They go to the seminars and nobody even cars for their presence as they care much to the art deco furniture and the oak paneling of the seminar room. Nobody gives them preference at the buffet. Nobody asks them whether they are feeling comfortable or they enjoyed the papers presented just before the tea break. In parties, people chat away and glorify the works of some young brats or some successful oldies and make these people feel that they were deadwood and forgotten furniture tossed into the storerooms.
Being out of fashion or parlance does not make a person obsolete. So I have a reason to talk so. I too am getting old. I have had my friends and I would make friends till I switch over to another existence. But what would happen to me and my friends once we go out of fashion and our words, presence and opinion do not count for a generation to come or a generation that would just ignore us with there mountainous ignorance? What about us or the artists, writers, critics, curators, performers who have run their innings and are forced to retire to oblivion? It is seriously an injustice that we do to such people. I do not say that everyone should volunteer to respect them. But what I want is places where these people could live and their life in company, compassion and mutual appreciation.
I have a dream about aged art practitioners who are no longer trendy but still agile in their minds and creativity. I have a dream about a place or a life style for the people who are forcefully rendered useless by the changing scenario. I have a dream about a community living centre/centers wherever possible. And it is like this:
I call them Art Ashrams. These are the places where you make a complex of cottages, study rooms, halls, studios, gym, recreation centers, walking ways, garden and state of the art communication facilities, medical facilities and a wonderful kitchen. This is funded by a few like minded people with corporate and charity inputs. In these Art Ashrams anybody from the art scene could come in and stay as there would be some permanent and old people around all the time. If they visitors are young they could cook for the oldies, share their knowledge and art and in turn listen to the old stories recounted by the artists, writers, performers and so on.
In these Ashrams, nobody would stop you from being an inmate. You may come in and you may pay your fee (just to take care of your food, laundry and other auxiliary services), you can find warmth in your old friends. You may meet your girl friend or boy friend from another age. You may recount your stories and you may do your art. But in these places, you will find the ultimate recognition and respect both from your peer group as well as from the youngsters.
This is the place where you find yourself devoid of all egos. You get/make the same facility as others. None is treated specially. You can make yourself special by recounting stories every evening in a better way.
If you are a cynic, you make call it an old age home. But for me, in my dreams it is an Art Ashram, where I could live with my friends, colleagues, girl friends, boy friends, with your memories and stories.
My friends have promised me land and I am sure I will be able to raise funds to do the buildings. I don’t own it. It belongs to my dreams and my dreams belong to you. You are welcome to my Art Ashram.
Make your Art Ashrams, so that I could come and stay with you guys, whenever I need to tell you a story, in my old age with my weakened muscles and never say die will to dream and recount.
Saturday, March 26, 2011
We are a thankless community. Yes, I am talking about the art community in general which includes not only artists but also critics, writers, curators, gallerists, dealers, consultants and other art activists. We have this tendency to celebrate the visible, the successful and the confirmed affairs. When the real issues come we just shrink back. Just like any other irresponsible citizen who throws his junk right in front of his gate and feels that anyway now it is out of his ‘home’ though the heap is now on someone else’s doorstep, we too show irresponsible behavior when it comes to the real issues pertaining to the society in general and the art community in particular.
You may ask who has given me the right to spread a blanket accusation on the art community. I have gained it for myself because I too am one amongst this thankless community. Let’s face it. There are exceptions but to improve the quality of a society/community the exceptions should become a rule, a norm; not a forced one but as natural as a reflex action. For example, when Manohar Devlalikar, contemporary of M.F.Husain, lived a tramp’s life and died a tramp’s death in Delhi (right near Mandi House where Lalit Kala Akademy is situated), to organize his last passage to the abode of peace, artist like Inder Salim Tikku, Sushil Kumar, Al Saidi Hasan and many theatre personalities came around and did all what they could do. There was no procession with the dead body around the city, there were no ululations, there were no breast beating, there were no public statements and there were no photo ops.
A few years back, a young sculptor, Ashok Prajapati passed away in Delhi. He used to work in the Garhi Studios. He had a lot of friends. His friends organized a condolence meeting at the Garhi Gallery. We all went there. It was a silent affair with artist friends sitting around his photograph, in their white sober clothes and remembering the good times they spent with the late artist. The moment was very intense. Ashok Prajapati was not a celebrity artist. But he had earned his friends. Friends come around when something happens. And we need a community made out of friends. Today, we deliver our social responsibility through facebook postings. I don’t say that facebook is a bad option. It is one of the most powerful tools to develop a friendly community but my point is not that here.
On 12th March 2011, Biren De passed away in Delhi. If I use a typical journalistic phrase, ‘Biren De was found dead in his Chittaranjan Park residence on 12th March 2011.’ Now for the beginners, Biren De was one of the most celebrated abstract artists of the 1970s and 1980s. There was time when Neo-Tantricism became an internationally acclaimed aesthetic approach, mainly thanks to Ajit Mukherjee’s publication on ‘Tantra’ in the US, Biren De used to be hailed as the undisputed master of the Neo-Tantirc style. His name was pronounced in one breath along with the names of G.R.Santhosh, J.Swaminathan and K.C.S.Panicker. Throughout his life Biren De actively painted, living almost a secluded life in Chittaranjan Park in South Delhi. However, during 1990s and the new millennium Neo-Tantricism had become an obsolete artistic style.
How does an artist become defunct when the style in which he is/used to be famous for becomes obsolete? A kind of art going out of circulation does not devalue the spiritual and material existence of a person who has created that art. He may become less visible, his art may become less visible, but how can he or she be done away with only because that style is no longer in vogue? If it is like that today’s contemporary works could be treated as obsolete art in the coming years. Does that force today’s artists to live an undignified life in future? Or could anyone disparage an artist and his life for nothing? Above all, could anyone just outcaste him like a pest and forget him by pushing him into the dark shafts in our minds?
That’s what exactly we did with Biren De. His death did not make into the front page headlines. The news of his death did not become tickers that roll at the bottom of the news channels. Some good Samaritans sent across text messages. And quite a few wondered, ‘Was he still alive?’ Biren De was living alone. Another artist friend living in the vicinity was helping him out in organizing things. A maid servant came everyday and cooked and cleaned for him. Last year he had a fall and had his shoulders broken. But he kicked back to health, traveled to Germany to see his wife and again came back to his studio cum residence in C.R.Park. As usual, on that day too the maid came, cleaned the house, and made tea for the master. When she touched him to wake him up, she found the body unusually cold on a hot March morning. Neighbors were alerted. The artist friend was summoned along with the doctor. And the doctor declared him dead in sleep out of a heart failure. There was an intervention by the people near around to avert a post-mortem and they succeeded in it. The body was taken to Nigam Bodh Ghat and after two days, the artist friend collected the ashes. And he keeps it in a locker and waits for De’s wife to come and receive it.
I just remember Manohar Devlalikar. He lived a Tramp’s life and died a tramp’s death. Biren De had a roof over his head, a very solid and comfortable one. But qualitatively, Devlalikar and De were brothers in their post celebrity life and death. They breathed their last in their loneliness. There was no procession, no condolence meeting, no public statements or photo ops. When a senior artist contacted the Lalit Kala Akademy authorities in Delhi to send in a wreath, the answer came immediately, “Today is Second Saturday.” (For anyone who does not know the Indian systems, Second Saturday is a government holiday in India and on a holiday Indian workforce refuse to work if they are in the public sector). We could call it official apathy but there is something beyond that; our general thanklessness. We are busy organizing triennales, biennales, community workshops, building new audience communities, art fairs and so on. We just don’t have time.
There is a saying, accident always happens to others until it happens to us. And we all believe that accidents never happen to us until it knocks at our door at the oddest of hours without any warning. When someone’s studio gets sealed we are internally happy for the trouble that he got himself into. When someone’s work is broken in transit we are happy that it would make the guy to pay for mending it. We are seriously happy when we come to know that our friend’s Prague or Berlin show came back without having the pleasure of any collector’s touch. We feel like thumping on our chests like gorillas when we see the sealed crates with ‘fragile’ stickers and a German address.
We have responded collectively only for M.F.Husain and Chandramohan. We are concerned with M.F.Husain genuinely because after Raja Ravi Varma, he is the only artist who has touched the masses. We were concerned with Chandramohan because we were genuinely concerned about the secularism and democracy in India. For no other issue we have ever stood together, with or without our reservations. Of course, you would remind me of Surendran Nair’s work at the NGMA. But then that was only a Delhi-centric response and it was really a strong response.
Now, let me delve a bit into one of the recent developments in Delhi. Suddenly, on the front and rear entry gates of Rabindra Bhavan in Delhi where three academies (Fine Arts, Music-Drama and Literature), one gallery complex, two libraries, three book stores, conference halls are situated, there appeared two sign boards, ‘Parking Only for Official’s Vehicles’.
Three days back, I was stopped at the gate by a security man and he pointed his fingers at the board. So I asked him, “Where shall I park my car?” He pointed across the road and what he meant was the limited parking lot in front of the Doordarshan Kendra (Headquarters of National Television of India), which was already full with ‘their’ cars. Besides, to reach any other parking in the area you have to drive half a kilometer and walk back. So now what has prompted the authorities to reserve the parking space of Rabindra Bhavan for officials only? What is this Rabindra Bhavan all about? It is a public building where people come for different purposes. If they don’t have the access to this building, who is going to come to this place? Now, what could be done on this, I ask my own community, that is the art community? Is there anybody to raise a finger against this? (My days of struggle are over. So there is no need to go to LKA any more, so why should I make an enemy out of the chairman and the secretary. Who knows, I will be a part of the Triennale or Biennale or National Exhibition or camp? Why should I lose my chance? I have driver and he has his mobile. I can handle it, no problem- is that what you think right now?)
Another vital issue: These days wherever you go, public or private institutions, you see private security people, uniformed and bored people, who itch to show their authority to anyone and everyone. There used to be no security men in the Rabindra Bhavan in our good old days (here I am a bit nostalgic). But those were good old days. Today, anybody could be a potential threat to the state. So the state should employ watchdogs everywhere. And private security agencies are a new way of siphoning out funds. I can understand up till then: we need surveillance, control etc. etc. But who has given these poor guys in uniform an extra authority to question you like the following: You are in front of the gallery entrance, the remote control system will open it once you reach a particular point. Suddenly, a sleepy guy wakes up from his pornographic reveries about the women who go in and come out in the premises, asks you this question: ‘Saab, aap ko kahan jaana hai? (Sir, where do you want to go?) Now, why should this illiterate wretch ask this question to anyone when he knows for sure that people come to the gallery to see art or the artist or to meet friends.
At the main building, once you reach the stairs or the lift, suddenly someone hisses behind you. That’s a security man not a snake. He has seen you walking in and going up to the stairs or lift. At that time he will not move an inch of his sorry self. But he takes immense pleasure in calling people from behind. If making entries of your name and address is mandatory, then it should be informed to the visitor in polite terms. It just does not happen in Rabindra Bhavan. Security people are for surveillance and they are not supposed to ask questions to the visitors because that is not expected from them. No security personal in an airport ask you while he/she frisks you, about your destination and purpose of visit. Is there anybody out there to voice this opinion?
When corruption and nepotism happen right under our nose, we keep quite and when it affects us suddenly we look for a community. People show you thanklessness because you too are often thankless to them. This is the way the community split into innumerable pieces which look almost impossible to paste back to the original shape. Like slaves we take everything with a foolish smile pasted on our faces. We never ask who is giving public funding for art and who is using it? We never question who is taking decisions on behalf of us. Instead we take all the dirt on our face as if it were our fate.
With one small example (which could be a very big example too) I will conclude this note: This information is collected from some pictures in facebook. During the India Art Summit (January 2011), two foreign curators came from Australia. They visited a few artists in Delhi. With all their innocence, they posted their visit to India in facebook. I found them (from the pics) sitting in a ‘seminar/panel’ at the Lalit Kala Akademy where (from the banner) I could make out that as a collateral to India Art Summit, a seminar on ‘Future Aesthetic Visions of India’ was going on. These two ladies were there along with Raqs media group, Diksha Nath and some other people whom I don’t recognize. In some other pictures we see the same ladies at Diksha Nath’s lawn in Sundar Nagar where her in-laws (Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and Nilima Sheikh) serving tea to them.
My simple question: Anybody knew about this Future Aesthetic Vision of India? That too held at the LKA during IAS? And what is Diksha Nath’s authority to represent India ( 1.5 billion people, man) and its future aesthetic vision? Who has invited her there? Why the same people did not invite a number of young vibrant art professionals (girls) writing, traveling and researching on Indian contemporary art (I can name them if you ask me)?
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Thanks to Facebook, birthdays are now a public affair. There was a time when birthdays were celebrated in a calmly ceremonious way. You get up in the morning with a smile on your face (not on facebook) and look around. You see the things around you the same; the poster of an adorable hero or heroine on the wall, the table where you have stacked your books and writing tools (there used to be no desk tops and lap tops), the jug of water, the sleepy table lamp, the fan, the faintly bluish walls. You open the window and see the plantain leaves nodding at you, sun rays seeping in through the broken mop of the trees present a shadow play on the other end of your room’s wall. Then you listen to the birds chirping and shrieking of the children playing in the neighborhood. The fisherman’s call, the familiar sound of an old bus passing by, clanging of plates and utensils in the wash basin, the creaking of a pulley that helps the bucket go into the well to draw water.
When you crane your neck and vaguely look out of your window, you see a pair of wet foot steps going along the courtyard to a small shrine at the other end of it. And you realize that your mother has taken bath and she is now performing a ritual at the family shrine, preparing an offering with sugar and rice on a make shift stove brought before the shrine from the storeroom at the backyard. Then you wonder what is going on in and around your house, a sweet smell waft through the air and come into your nostrils. You turn your neck and see your sweet little sister standing at the doorstep, smiling at you. And on her open palms you see a piece of plantain leaf on which you find a splattering of red kumkum and sandal paste along with a few petals of flower and tulsi leaves. She has just come back from a temple near by where she has gone to pray for you on your birthday. She asks you to go and take bath and come before the shrine fast and she informs you that your mother has already been there preparing sweets for you, right before the gods, whom you of late have learn to disbelieve.
You struggle out of your bed with your hands carefully straightening the lungi (one piece clothe that your wear in South India) so that your shame is not exposed to the world on such a beautiful day. And once you manage to get out of the bed with both hands on your waist, you feel like jumping back to the bed and cover yourself with a quilt. And also you wish the earth develop a huge crack so that you could vanish to the nether worlds without leaving a trace on the face the earth thereby becoming a local legend. As the earth does not break open as per your wish, you look other venues to hide, a big crater on the wall or ceiling, or this quilt turning into a magical garb that could make you invisible and so on. While you scramble through these thoughts your sister gives you an understanding smile and she knows why you do all these things.
Yes, you are shirtless on an early summer day and you had gone to bed shirtless. Your body has sprouted a lot of hairs that only you secretly assess their beauty and steady growth. You don’t want to expose your body to the world to enjoy its wealth. You don’t want others to see the darkening nipples on your chest and the white cracks on the skin along your armpits. You are growing and while you secretly wish your growth to be acknowledged by the world, you equally feel ashamed to expose it in front of other. Birthday or no birthday, it is a difficult day for you when you see yourself standing half naked, helpless and struggling before a beautiful girl from the next door, with whom you have been having a never-said-so love affair in your private dreams. You adore her, you worship her and you simply love her. And now look, she is standing just behind your sister as she is your sister’s friend and classmate and both of them have gone together to temple, god alone knows for the same reason or different reasons.
You wish that she too had gone to the temple to pray for your birthday. But from her cute smile and sparkling eyes you are not able to make out anything. You really wanted to see her, at least in your last night’s dream, on your birthday, coming in front of you with the temple offerings. But you never thought that you would stand before her in this don’t-know-where to go and where to look situation on the very occasion of your birthday. You don’t want to leave your grace so you smile at your sister and then at your secret love now standing behind your sister. And anyone could read that smile as a white ink used on a wrongly typed script, which is a definite cry. Your hands itch to cover your chest or fumble around and grab a piece of cloth called shirt, towel, vest or anything (somehow now you think about the plantain leaves, long, broad, green and resplendent in sunlight) but you are afraid that if you leave your hands from the waist the loin cloth may slip down like your skin and you will stand exposed to the world (for now at least, that girl from the next door). And who wants to commit suicide on your birthday?
With a lot of giggling over lips and sparkling in their eyes (both possible only to girls, why, you wonder) they leave the room for my comfort. I get up, wear my underpants (South Indian boys don’t wear underpants at night. In this way they are far away from North Indian boys and too close to the Hollywood boys), tie my lungi strongly around my waist, wear a shirt and look at the mirror. Oh, here you are, all nineteen years old, fresh, masculine-still feminine, manly still boyish, trendy still naïve, controlled still sentimental, bold still fearful, handsome still ugly with all those uncontrollable pimples and still not fully formed facial hairs. And you suddenly wonder why you wore all those clothes. You are supposed to go to bathroom and freshen up. So you remove your clothes one by one again and stand nude before the mirror and take a full view of your reflection. Not bad, you tell yourself. Then you flex your muscles and see how much they have bulged as a couple of weeks back you had started your gym regime in a local gym where a pair of dumb bells and a few weights and an iron bar tied between two palm trees are the only equipments. You look at the arm pit, pubic area and thighs and feel a strange thrill. Then suddenly you remember the girl from the next door and your cringe and wear a towel and get into the bathroom.
Fresh, wet, scented and in new clothes you come out of the room as if between your grand entry into the courtyard and the moment of waking up nothing untoward had happened. You stand in front of the shrine, fold your hands, and slowly open your eyes only to see your mother, sister and the girl from the next door standing in a row with folded hands and praying for my well being. You feel like on the top of the world. You imagine a lot of film sequences from which the hero and heroine are erased and on their place you and the girl next door are added. No need to say that only at the end of the song sequence mother and sister appear in the scene. In the dance sequence we wear very many western clothes and tribal clothes. And when the scene is cut into the frame where mother and sister are there, we all wear normal South Indian clothes. For visual embellishment, some jasmine flowers are added to the hairs of my sister and the girl next door And they wear silk skirt and blouse as if all the South Indian girls wear only silk clothes on any special occasion. Your mother does not wear Kancheevaram clothes nor does she adorn her hairs with jasmine and kanakambaram flowers (not because she does not want to be one of those Thotta Vaikuntam or Ravinder Reddy women) because she is a widow.
In most of such narratives you find a windowed mother more convenient for the accentuation of the whole scene. Then only son gets that much importance on his birthday. Freud says (because as a part of growing up you had started reading Freud, Jung and Marx and started believing in them too!) sons want their fathers to be dead. Could be. But when you grow up and your son wants his mother’s husband to be dead, then you are in trouble. Anyway, you come back to the reality. Your bleary eyed mother puts a tika on your forehead with sandal paste. She feeds you with the sweet dish that she had just prepared in the morning while you were day dreaming from your bed. Then your sister feeds you with the same. Then the girl next door with her all shyness comes forward and feeds you. This is the moment that you always have been craving for. Once it is done, you conjure up a new ritual and you start counter feeding them (which obviously was not a part of ritual till last year. The girl next door moved after your last birth day!); first your mother and your sister and then the girl. All the while, mother smiles between tears and sister cries between smiles and the girl and I smile like two new moons appeared untimely in the sky. We save our cries for the future.
My dear friends, thank you very much for wishing me on/through facebook on my forty second birthday. Today I am beginning my journey on the forty third year. You know, yesterday, I did not open my facebook. I was very apprehensive. I did not know who is going to wish me and who is not going to. But this is not a number game after all. But like a child, who holds a candy and never licks, only to look at it once in a while, and like a child who does not open his gift boxes, only to toy with it for a long time, I did not open facebook yesterday at all. I toyed the idea of seeing all those wishes. I daydreamed about all of you. I walked along with you and I flew along with you secretly. I was with you and when I opened the facebook today, I found your best wishes. I hold them close to my heart. Thank you.
Something about the photograph: In this you see me emulating the posture of a Muslim guy during the Gujarat riot times. He is pleading for his life. He is helpless and at the same time he is happy that he is spared. I too feel the same. I am helpless before your love and I plead for my life. Please continue to love me. And I am thankful to god the almighty who has spared me to see another day.
Saturday, March 19, 2011
On 10th March 2011, Vagator Beach in Goa transformed itself into the scene of a silent battle, which has been going on for the last fifty years from different parts of the world; the fight of Tibetans for the freedom of their country from the clutches of one of the biggest nations in the world, China. Conceived an executed by the noted site specific installation artist, Subodh Kerkar, this was a project where art, activism and non-violent resistance took an aesthetic form through careful interventions of the artist on the site (Vagator Beach) and of the Buddhist monks (through their performance and chanting) and also of the Tibetan community (mostly migratory traders) living in Goa.
Titled ‘Unfolding of a Dream’ this site specific installation was conceived a year back when Subodh Kerkar visited the Buddhist monasteries in Sikkim. Influenced by the beauty and performative opulence of the Buddhist customs and also enchanted by the philosophical forced embodied in the fluttering of the saffron, white, yellow and red colored flags tied high over the posts and architectures where Tibetans live their life in exile in India, Subodh decided to work with these elements in one of his site specific works. Besides Subodh was moved by the flag of freedom, the Tibetan National Flag held closer to chest by each Tibetan citizen living in India.
Subodh says that it was not an easy thing for him to organize this project though in Goa and elsewhere his site specific installations are appreciated and displayed. According to him, when art is something with subtle political connotations it would pass off as an un-disturbing piece of art but when it has direct political connotations, it has to be mediated at different levels. On the political side, as an artist who has been negotiating with different government departments, public and private bodies in order to make Goa a hub of Indian site specific art, Subodh could pull off a few strings and could get permission for using the Vagator Beach as his site. And through the Tibetan Community leaders he contacted the 400 strong Tibetan people who sell jewelries, beads, clothes and food in Goa and also visited the Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Murgode in Karnatakam for inviting spiritual leaders to be a part of the project.
Tenth March is a very special day for the Tibetans. It was on this day in 1959 Tibetans under the leadership of Dalai Lama declared an uprising against the Chinese domination, which eventually led into the exile of Dalai Lama and his freedom loving people to India and many parts of the world. Subodh chose this day to ‘raise’ his installation, ‘Unfolding of a Dream’ with the help of the Tibetan community in Goa.
Thousands of flags are brought onto the beach where mostly the tourists come for sun bath. To their surprise these flags were tied to the poles and later driven down to the beach sand. Reminding the viewer of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty or Christo’s mountainside works, Subodh as a tribute to these masters, shaped these flag posts into an unfolding circle and the tail of it moving towards the entry point of the beach. And below each flag post a plastic water bottle was cut to form a lampshade so that the light could be directed towards wildly fluttering flag by the sea wind.
This project was a participatory project in all its truest sense. All four hundred Tibetans in Goa came together in batches to help the artist to create this installation. They made around four hundred mashals (torches) our small steel tumblers and sticks. On the evening of 10th March 2011, the Tibetan people, along with the local enthusiasts and tourists, led by Subodh Kerkar, Education minister of Goa, Tibetan monks from Karnataka in their ritual regale, walked from within the circle of flags, followed the trail of it with lit torches, chanting ‘om mani padme hum’ towards a makeshift stage created out of red carpets.
The dream of freedom was very much there in every one’s eyes. They walked in full vigor with their spiritual leader Dalai Lama showing them the way in their dreams. Subodh spoke about his experiences while working towards this project. He likened the Tibetan people in Goa, who run shops, with Sant Tukaram. “They sit still, never beckon you with the words of allurement. They don’t bargain with you. If you buy things from them, they bow to you while accepting the money. I am fascinated by them and I am proud to say that they are not Tibetans in India, they are Indians from Tibet. They are us,” Subodh Kerkar said on the occasion. The monks spoke to the Tibetan community and they reiterated their demand from freedom through non-violent means. Then they performed Cham Dance, a spiritual ritualistic dance.
Unfolding of a Dream remained at Vagator Beach for a week and it was removed on 17th March 2011.
Post script: I was there clicking pictures and soaking myself in the energy of Tibet. And I found this lady with her child walking towards their dream freedom.
That’s me at the Chapora Fort above Vagator beach.
That’s the noted photography artist, Alex Fernandes and myself at the fort.
Friday, March 18, 2011
There is some difficulty in defining love. Right from materialists to spiritualists, from occultists to underground practitioners, from poets to painters, from scientists to anarchists, every one has tried to define love. And I don’t think any definition of love so far made by anyone is a satisfactory definition; and the reason for people even today thinking about defining it is the best proof to substantiate my observation. Love is an intensively subjective feeling; it is not only a feeling but also a response to the situation and sensations that caused such a feeling. This feeling changes man into an angel and at times a brute. Don’t you remember the famous scene in Othello, where in their nuptial chamber Othello brutally strangulates Desdemona only to keep his love for her eternal and intact? I have heard one of my friends, looking deeply into the eyes of a cute child and mumbling to himself, “Shall I kill you my child? I love you so much.”
What had triggered in me when I saw your left hand fingers burnt, to flush out all those revulsion that otherwise I would have felt in seeing someone’s burnt body, my child? When you grow up, my daughter, while looking at the faint scar (a minor de-coloration may remain) on the fingers of your left hand you might not even remember the kind of agony that I had in seeing your discolored and swollen skin on that fateful day. When you put your fingers now slowly recovering from the ugly blisters, I don’t avert my eyes. When you, without knowing what you are doing, push your wounded fingers in my mouth, I don’t find my body stiffening out of horror. When you show the rosy fingers with the peeled off skin to my face and expect me to puff air on them and kiss them, I do it with more pleasure than the sense of parental duty, while my heart brimming with a sensation that no other incidents have evoked in me during my life. Why, I ask myself? Was it not for my unconditional love for you, would I have been able to touch your wounds? Taken those fingers to my lips and kissed them? I asked a question several times during these days: would I do the same to a child who is of your age, had she been suffering from a burn injury or any other injury?
I don’t know. But I know that love is one of the most selfish feelings that makes man (and woman too) be so insensitive. For love, the most sensitive and sensual of emotions, man becomes insensitive and selfish. Today, when I look into the eyes of my kids, I see a universe reflected there. I tell myself that I could spend my whole life looking into their eyes and dreaming about my happiness that I feel when I look into their eyes. I could imagine myself getting reflected into their eyes as if our eyes were two mirrors set parallel so that our reflections could be endless and infinite. I would imagine that I need not even meet anyone in the world because my life has founds its supreme joy in the playful deeds of my kids. When they climb over my shoulders, I feel like empowered. I started hating the world outside me where I meet with harsh behavior and rage of strangers who don’t have anything to do with my life. Then I start to think that I should create a world for myself and my children where access should be denied to all the people who harbor negative thoughts in their lives. I imagine myself to be living eternally in this happiness. I tell myself that I am the watchdog of my kids. And I am the best caretaker of my kids. I can see them growing every day an inch in their mind. When my son speaks about Tokyo and Osaka, I wonder from where he got these names. It could be television channels that teach him all these. But I feel the elation of being his father. And the secret pride is infectious and I think of all those parents who take pride in their children’s growth. We, the parents slowly make this world a selfish place, a place not worth living and we say we do everything is done for you, my children.
This reverie at times take me to this question: Had my parents too felt the same for me? Had they too seen reveries, woven dreams and imagined scenes for me? Had they too thought that I should remain with them forever and ever? Had they too thought that I should not grow at all so that, by the end of a dreary and weary day they could come back to home after office hours and lose themselves into our innocent eyes where expectation of meeting them in the evening them had transformed into the greed for the eatables that they bring everyday from the wayside shops. Had they too thought that I would remain eternally theirs and serve them the way they expected me to? Then I review my life and find all negative answers for these questions. First of all, I betrayed my parents by growing up. Then I betrayed them by wandering off to the shores of dreamy places where I could be alone. I betrayed them by forcefully ejecting the innocence in my eyes and replacing it with the perpetual greed. I betrayed them by going against her wills and wishes. And find my solace in the feeling that all sons and daughters do the same to their parents. Our parents also might have done the same to their parents. And it goes on like that as if in the reflections in the two parallel mirrors.
I wake up with a shudder from my reveries. If it has to be so, then one day, these kids are also going to leave me. After a point of time, they would think that I am trespassing into their privacies. My touch and caressing would make them shrink, if it is before their friends. The shoulders that were once the branches of an unshakable tree for them now would look like something that had failed in its mission. Then one day you would realize that they too are doing this to you for the love they start believing in as they grow up. Parental care becomes a sort of facilitating for the kids for future betrayals. And the interesting thing is that this is done on almost a mutual agreement. The parents inherit the betrayal from their parents and pass it on to their progenies and the story of straying away keeps on happening as if the dog in the children’s story book: He has to stray then only he could be brought back to the fold. But when you are a grown up boy or girl, straying becomes a compulsion and the difference between you and the dog in the story is this that the straying dog does not know that he strays but you know very well that you are about to stray and you find a lot of happiness in it.
Love is the aggregate of all these situations. Once, while speaking to a friend I asked this question to him: People say all women are the same. Then why do we, men, chase so many skirts? If everyone is the same, and one knows for sure that only the exterior is different and core is the same, why do we behave madly, why kings abdicate, sane turn insane and brilliant ones commit suicide and level headed men and women spend endless hours in chat rooms and meeting points of online communities? My friend said, “It’s simple a question though you made it sound like someone who is newly converted to French theories speaking to a professor who is a hardcore believer of neo-American theores, while both of them live in India, in some inconspicuous University with no aid from the University Grant Commission. The answer is that each person loves differently.”
That was an eye opener for me. People seek out for different people despite having permanent partners and permanent loves in their lives because they seek different people who could love them differently. So what makes these different people different from the ones whom you know very well? What is that magic that makes the realities vanish and in its place illusions are conjured up? What is that alchemy that suddenly makes the man who out of routine and ordinariness has turned into a piece of led, into gold and shine like one? What is that sight suddenly makes the disbeliever believe? What is that note that makes the mute sing? What is that color that makes a naïve scribbler paint? What is that movement that makes a clumsy ordinary man move his body like a swan? What is that cloud suddenly brings a torrent of rain into the deserted dunes of your mind? What is that eternal high that dips you into the intoxication of no drinks? What is that finger touch that makes you bloom like a forest in spring? What is that fire that burns the deadwood of custom in your mind and brings you out as a shining metal? What is that mountain creak that breaks you open as a little brook? What is that bird that gives you wings to fly? What is that drop that teaches you to hang like a dew drop from the tip of your life?
Different people in this world and they are so many, How many one could love and in that expression does there any kind of love exist between this craving for the different people and the actual need for them? In fact, I believe, it is not just that someone wants a different person or different people in one’s life in order to love and experience love differently, but this perennial craving for a multitude of lovers originates from the man’s innate efforts to be someone else than what he is now. It is the same with the women too. Everyday, you get up in the morning, go to the washroom, look at the mirror there. You see someone whom you remember vaguely; he or she was the one who was with you when you had your last glass of whiskey and the last morsel of food wiped off from the steel plate, as you watched the television programs as if your were in a trance and your fingers moved across the plate making a squeaking sound, irritating the people at the table to their wit’s end. He was with you then, looking at from a distance, scrutinizing your deeds on which you by then did not have any control. You don’t want that person to assess you. You don’t want that person to pass judgment on you because the person who is watching you is none other than you. All these while you have been trying to become someone else who you think has been residing in you from time immemorial.
With bleary eyes you look at that person now looking at you with some sort of contempt hanging at the tips of his lips, from the mirror. How much you hate him because that is you who is watching you now; the you that you don’t want to become anymore. You at that moment wish that the face that looks at back you with an enigmatic smile from the mirror was a specter or a made up face, which you remember last night you had worn when you went out for a party. You wish that with the first splash of water you could wash that face off. You wish it would peel off from your countenance the way you could peel off a baked potato. You imagine that this specter would run away, leaving you alone. But it lingers on. So you pour water on your face and look at the mirror again and to your dismay you realize that the man in the mirror, instead of fading away, has become clearer and sharper. His contours shine from the light emitted by the white light above the mirror and the contempt at the corner of his mouth becomes more visible. And you hate it. As the last effort to get rid of this man on the mirror, you brush your teeth, shave your stubble, sit in the commode and think about empty spaces, hark to your bowel movements until you hate yourself for being just an eating and defecating machine, open the hot water pipe, then the cold water pipe, while the water pours into the bucket you masturbate, finally you wash yourself and come out drenched in steam, sweat and water. You want to feel fresh and good about yourself as you could flush him out of your system and to confirm that you did, you stealthily throw a last glance at the mirror before you come out of the bathroom. And you see your fresh face there and from behind your shining skin on the face, there, yes, he looks at your again with a smile.
And that must be the reason why people look for different people in their lives. They want to be someone else and as they come to know over a period of time that it is very difficult to become someone else, they need to become that they want to become through aligning themselves with different people. Like some famous actors do, we collect people and we are better than the famous actors because they collect people in order to reassure themselves that they are them only and they remain to be them. But people like us collect people in order to become someone else. That’s why in the lives of famous film actors there is no love, there are only rendezvous. In our lives, there need not be rendezvous but there is a constant search for love.
Now, if you ask me is there any definition for love from my side, I would say, all what I did here was an effort to steer myself away from giving or even attempting any definition to love. One thing is for sure that people love and people get disappointed because they love someone who could be a mirror for them and interestingly the other person also think the same and what do you see is the endless and infinite reflection of people looking at each other in pursuit of something called happiness. They search for the one who is not he/she and in the process they realize the persistence of themselves. And the more they want to get rid of themselves the more they would fall in love or they simply love and in both cases, my dear children, betrayals cannot be far behind.
Sunday, March 13, 2011
You wouldn’t believe it. I could have become a painter! If I had started off as a painter, today I would have known as an ‘artist’ because an artist is someone who could do anything in any medium, not necessarily ‘oil on canvas.’ The moment I say or hear oil on canvas, I remember what the veteran painter, A.Ramachandran said about installation art in 1990s. That was a time when gallerists in India despised the idea of installations like plague and the ones who propagated such ideas, one of those embodied pestilences that would appear on the day of apocalypse. Ramachandran has always been sympathetic to young artists who dared to experiment with new mediums, provided the said artists were convinced of what they had been doing.
He said then, “You may do installations. But the medium should be oil on canvas!” Yes, to survive as an artist in those days you had to have worked in the medium of oil on canvas, which was the only art medium understood by most of the art promoters in India. Today things have changed for good. Perhaps the tables have been turned during the last few years. You would be treated as plague if you worked in oil on canvas. Your only shield is your former reputation as a saleable artist and a modernist par excellence with ample amount of grey hair on your head. Recently, I overheard a few young people who came to visit two shows simultaneously happening at the Lalit Kala Akademy Galleries in New Delhi, commenting on the predominantly painting based show in the first floor, ‘Oh…paintings. Let’s go upstairs.’
As a young boy I opened my eyes to two portraits of my father done by graphite on paper, neatly framed and hung from the walls of my ancestral home. Like any other young boy, I used to think that my father was extremely handsome with a pair of big brooding eyes, expansive forehead, long nose, a thick jet black moustache, shapely lips and a chin with deep sexy cleft. And the painters have taken special care in highlighting his face with a special halo of white, which is exquisitely possible when you work with graphite as your medium. As my father appeared very handsome to me, I used to spend several hours looking at these portraits and the ways in which the lines formed into a shape and graphite powder highlighted deep and dark shadows. The most interesting thing in both the portraits was the sharpness of the collars with no suggestion of lines. The white shirt shined as if it were lit from inside.
In those days, any middle class family would have a row of photographs at the verandah or the drawing room. They would be neatly framed and kept in an angle so that a person could admire the contents of the photographs while standing just below it. Also this way of display dispelled the possibility of light reflecting directly on the glass, which otherwise would mar the way of seeing. Albums came much later. During those days, photographs were mostly studio photographs of family members, young children, degree holders’ convocation pictures both single and group. There would be some rare family photographs with the eldest members occupying the central space and children on the front row on the floor and the rest of the people as per their status and position within the family. At times you would see the photograph of any one of the vibrant members of the family standing with some celebrities who visited the village on some occasion. The celebrity could be a film star, a writer, a theatre person or a politician. I had seen a photograph of my father standing with the then superstar of Malayalam filmdom, Prem Nazir.
Having a painted portrait of one’s own was considered to be many times bigger an accomplishment than having a photographic portrait. Interestingly, most often these portraits are done out of existing photographs as there used to be no custom of ‘sitting’ for a portrait. I believe, the artists of those times as well as the commissioning household person did not have enough time or resource to do several ‘sittings’ to do a portrait. So they mostly depended on existing photographs. Perhaps, a portrait made out of an existing photograph was the then way of ‘photoshopping’ an image. The portrait artist could airbrush the wrinkles, moles, warts and added a bit more black to the thinning facial hairs, an in total they could make the person in question several times better than the living one or the one in the photograph. That must be the reason why my father, like me liked to spend sometime every day to admire his portraits. He treated his own image with a lot of reverence as if it belonged to a different person. Even today, even if I could call that behavior as Narcissism, I don’t dare to do so because as a writer I know how important that feeling is to live in another’s image or how important it is to feel like living in a borrowed body.
Perhaps, in those portraits my father was seeing his own self, which he could not articulate thanks to various reasons in a proper way, projected the way he wanted it to be and the admiration for those images came from his respect for the imaginary one within him who he believed to have manifested in these portraits. But in everyday life he was not vain glorious to spend time in making himself up for his own consumption or for the consumption of others. The maximum make up he used was Cuticura talcum powder that came in a cylindrical package in a standardized color scheme of orange and white with black typography. As this was the only powder that everyone used at home, after a shower, when they emerged from their dressing rooms, the all smelled alike; the smell of Cuticura powder. The other luxury he used to make himself up was my mother eyebrow pencil. He used it every morning to darken his graying moustache. When he went outside, he always wore a shade and he was the first man in my world in those times who wore Ray Ban glasses.
The portraits had affected him a lot, I believe. They had affected his way of looking at himself rather than any photographs taken during the same period did to him. Recently, in the Delhi Airport, while I was spending my time browsing through the books, I saw a photographic biography of the King of Pop, late Michael Jackson. In this book, for thr first time I noticed how he was affected by a promotional picture of him done for his BAD tour in 1980s. In this picture, you see a young Michael in sharp black leather outfits and with a white T inside, with a strand of curly hair tumbling over his forehead while his accentuated cohl lined eyes penetrated the viewer. In his eyes you see a wild man and a young boy with a lot of unfulfilled dreams. Today, when you look at that picture you realize how much airbrushed it is. No skin is shown; everything on him is a sheen except for his eyes. These pictures appeared in million copies all over the world. From the Mexican shanties to Trivandrum, from Los Angles to St.Petersberg Michael became a rage. Rest of his life, he was living that portrait; that portrait was the one in which he found the real MJ, the one Michel Jackson who wanted to be. He tried his best to be that man/boy/animal.
During my childhood portrait makers did not find too many patrons as the middleclass was struggling to make both the ends to meet in a post-Nehruvian economy. They used to be signboard painters, banner makers, poster makers, slide makers and occasional portrait artists. Most of them were trained under the same master or they were trained by someone who was trained by a commonly accepted master in a particular region. Their ability as portraits were put to use when a locally important person’s portrait was unveiled in the village library or reading room or school, or they were invited to do portraits of political leaders during the election days. It used to be a custom when a man was in his death bed, if his progenies were doing well on the financial side, they would invite an artist to make a portrait. Most of such portraits are done posthumously based on some vague and moth eaten black and white family group photos were this person appears in the central row.
Old people, as they believed that photographing often took away part of their soul, refused to be individually photographed. The result was a partially resembling fine portrait with a lot of artistic inputs posthumously. No children of a man challenge an artist for making their father more handsome and less like himself. Who wants to show off a more resembling but ugly portrait to the world? In that case my paternal grandfather saved his soul and body, I should say. No photograph or no portrait exists carrying his self. So when he died, before him being carried away to his final resting place, some perceptive person in the village found out a way to capture his ‘image’ (or that must have been a custom). They brought a lot of sandal paste and smeared it on the soles of the dead person and took the impressions of his feet. This was later dried and preserved in a corner of a room on a pedestal where he was worshipped as a family deity. Whenever there was a feast at home, the first portion was brought and kept before this wooden plaque. We believed that he would eat it though later on other people shared this. So my impression of my paternal grandfather used to a sandal paste smeared wooden plaque that had the privilege to eat all food before any one of us could.
My fathers portrait were done by two people; actually three, which I would explain later. One is done by my eldest uncle and the other one is done by artist Prabhakaran, who was a student of my uncle. In the portrait that my uncle did my father looked a bit old (middle aged. May be as old as me now) but with an energetic thrust of the body and a beautiful smile. In the second portrait, my father looked many times younger; he must have been in his early thirties then. That means, the second portrait came much later as my father was ageing and he wanted to see his real self reflected in one his portraits. So he commissioned the artist. My uncle had studied art under a famous local artist and photographer, Sahadevan sir. Sahadevan Sir studied art in Trivandrum under Govindan Achary. Govindan Achary belonged to the Raja Ravi Varma School and was trained under Raja Raja Varma. Artist Prabhakaran had apprenticed my uncle.
My uncle recently passed away. His name was Natesan and he was an interesting artist and man. He used to be known as ‘Baby Annan’ (Baby Brother) and he was Baby Annan to all. After trained as an artist he got a job in a government job in a school in Kerala. But he was a man of rebellious thinking. He resigned his job and went to Singapore. After spending a few years there he came back to Vakkom and settled there for a few years. From there, he shifted the family to Varkala, a near by town and established his atelier there. They called it workshop. But in retrospect I would call it an atelier. He outdid all the other painting studios of the town through sheer skill and dedication.
‘Baby Arts’ was the name of the atelier. During those days there was not a single film theater in the region that did not show the advertisement slides by Baby Arts. We used to count the number of slides came from Baby Arts, when we went to watch movies. Technology was changing fast. My uncle had a lot of ideas. He did portraits, banners, posters, sign board and every thing. But time was changing fast. Soon he developed a local technique to do screen printing. And Baby Arts was the first to have a screen printing studio in Varkala. Soon he started a school for spray painting. He bought a Morris Minor car to teach the spray painting techniques and in this vintage machine we used to have some joy rides. While my eldest cousin drove the car while sitting at the wheel on a small folding chair, he was happy to stuff the car with kids as he found in them the right pushers for his mean machine that stopped at every other five minutes of running.
And my tryst with art starts from Baby Arts. May be it would be appropriate to say that it started very early with my close association with my Baby Uncle’s youngest son who although three years elder to me, grew up with me and taught me the primary lessons of drawing and painting. His name is Shibu Natesan, now one of the most noted painters in India. We grew up together and we had ample amount of time to do so many things. Shibu used to be a child prodigy, I should say. He could draw anything. He used to draw on the mud walls with a twig in his hand. When I asked him to draw anything I wanted, he obliged. At that time capturing the resemblance of a man or woman was a proof to the ability of an artist. Shibu could draw and paint any man to his finer details. On small cardboards, with the enamel paint picked up from his father’s studio he drew the images of many personalities, instantly and spontaneously. His father, my uncle used to allow us to tamper with his paints and brushes.
While in Upper Primary class, Shibu’s father decided to send him to Sahadevan Sir’s studio for the formal training in art. After the class he came to our home and shared all what he had learned there. I too wanted to learn painting! I told my desire to Shibu and he agreed to teach me. He was in his high school those days. He asked me to do basic shapes and gave me a free hand exercises. I drew and drew. The more I drew the more my envy for him grew as I was hundred times less competent than this genius craftsman and artist of his age. Still I persisted in attempts and could ‘imitate’ things to certain levels. While I noticed things changing in Shibu’s life. He was no more interested to capture the resemblance of any person on thing. He did not want to draw the way the teachers taught him. During those days Kerala’s magazine illustrations were very vibrant. Former Madras school stalwarts like M.V.Devan and Namboodiri ruled the scene. The illustrations of A.S.Nair, Madanan and Prasad also were interesting. Shibu had already shifted his gear and had gone to a drawing style, which at that time I found absurd.
Even in his high school days Shibu was a rebel. He made sculptures in clay, painted them over with enamel paints and many people took them away to worship in their local shrines. We too had a Krishna painting and Ganesha sculpture by Shibu from his high school days. When he reached the school final, Shibu stopped making idols or portraits of gods and goddesses. His interest for portraiture lingered for a while only to wane soon. He was changing fast and my admiration for him was growing day by day. Shibu used to take his enamel painted clay sculptures to a near by hill for rolling down from the top. It gave him immense pleasure and seeing these and knowing these excited me.
Along with my writing practice I was encouraging myself to draw also. One day, I wanted to join a painting competition conducted by a committee which celebrated the birth anniversary of Kumaran Asan, one of the legendary poets of modern Malayalam literature. It was in our neighboring village, Kaikkara where Kumaran Asan was born. I participated in all the literary competitions and won praises and prizes. That particular year I wanted to participate in painting also. They would give few lines from Kumaran Asan’s poems and we should paint that scene. I wanted Shibu also participate in that competition. But with very stern voice he told me that art was not or not about competition. I was hearing something very new, strange, threatening and yet fascinating. Though I participated in that competition, did something and got a third prize that was the last time that I thought art was for competition and for proving ephemeral talents.
I have a lot to tell you about Shibu and my relationship with him. We had lived life together, shared things and at one point we used to imagine ourselves to be Van Gogh and Theo. I should talk about all those things at length to do justice to our relationship, which later on strained and welded back off and on at different occasions, however all the while we kept our respect for each other.
You remember a third portrait of my father mentioned before? Yes, it was an oil on canvas version of the second portrait and was done by Josh PS, another emerging artist who lives in Delhi, almost twenty years after my father’s death. My mother wanted to have a portrait of my father in oil on canvas and she commissioned Josh, who hailed from the same village, Vakkom! Today there are two lights always blinking on these portraits while the first one is removed from its frame and pasted in a huge family album.