Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Remembering Sarbari Da
Close friends do not call each other just for the sake of calling. They don’t call each other because they are telepathically connected. If thick friends make long conversations just be sure that they are either transpiring aspirations or conspiring in perspiration. Soul mates make crisp telephonic chats. When they do long conversations be sure that persons at the either end or at least one of them do not have much to do at that given moment. Artists in their mid careers, as they are often anxious spend a lot of time on phone just for reassuring that other artists are not selling works the way he does these days. Artists with settled and successful careers don’t make calls because they often receive it. When they don’t receive, their secretaries do it for them.
K.S.Radhakrishnan does not call me often because we are telepathically connected. When he calls wherever I am I pick up the call because he does not call anyone for killing time. Good friends know each other’s state of mind through the tone and timbre of the voice that they hear through the phones. Yesterday, when I was in a metro coach, despite the bad signal that you get there inside the tunnels I picked up the call when I saw the screen beaming K.S.Radhakrishnan’s name. His tone was grave and I sensed something wrong. Then he said, “Sarbari da is gone.” I stood there in silence without knowing how to respond. It is difficult to respond to the news of death, especially those of close and venerable people. I immediately remembered a similar situation a couple years back. Mini Sivakumar was ailing and all of us were hoping against hope. One the news came. Radhakrishnan broke down. He clutched my shoulder and said, ‘Mini’. That was enough for me to know what had happened.
Stupid you feel when you are not able to gauge the inner most pangs of a friend who has just received the news of a close friend’s demise. Sarbari Roy Chowdhury was not close to me and but he was close to Radhakrishnan and he is close to me. His pain is mine too. Like the surreal stream of blood coming out of the bullet wound from the general’s forehead, and traveling through the streets and alleys to reach the feet of his mother sitting in another town, pain travels through distance and touches the contours of my existence. If at all I could see Sarbari Roy Chowdhury, I could do that only through the eyes of Radhakrishnan. This, you may call it a shortcoming of an art historian/critic and insist that I should have known him on my own through textual analysis. But end of the day, art historical shortcomings could be a way of understanding a human being rather than his art.
First I saw Sarbari Roy Chowdhury’s sculpture in context at the Uttarayan Art Complex in Baroda. I was there to report an International Sculpture Symposium directed by Radhakrishnan. In the vast Uttarayan Complex, there is a huge sculpture of Rabindranath Tagore in his Valmiki incarnation in a play written by him. Surekha has done a video out of the installation of this sculpture there at the art complex. Standing under this sculpture and later from a distance, Radhakrishnan told me a few things about Sarbari Roy Chowdhury. For Radhakrishnan, Sarbari Da was his second Guru, though academically, he was his first Guru. But destiny and decision had it so that Radhakrishnan wanted Ramkinkar Baij to be his Guru. When Radhakrishnan prepared his dissertation and on the front page he wrote ‘To My Guru Ramkinkar Baij’, at least for a moment, he thought Sarbari Da would get hurt. But he nodded in appreciation.
I thought this story was a great example of human dignity. I also got a few anecdote recounted by Radhakrishnan about his second Guru. They were thick friends and remained so throughout the life of Sarbari Da. The lonely rural paths of Santiniketan had seen a very young boy riding pillion on Sarbari Da’s bicycle. They were a constant presence in the village paths. They were like a couple- Sarbari Da and Radhakrishnan- Guru and Shishya. Rural grapevine had it differently. They even thought they were having some ‘affair’ between them. Radhakrishnan and R.Sivakumar liked and revered Sarbari Da immensely. These emaciated boys unfailingly visited Sarbari Da’s home studio only to listen songs till the night crept into the next morning and to eat some delicious meals that occasionally served to them by Sarbari Da’s wife.
Sarbari Da was one of the diligent fans of Indian music. Sarbari Da hunted down Indian classical music in whichever form of recording. He started his collection when there were only LP records. Then he progressed into cassettes as the recording industry progressed along with new technologies of recording. R.Sivakumar used to quip that Sarbari Da used to look into the pockets of both acquaintances and strangers only to know whether they were having some cassettes hidden there. Such an avid collector, listener and lover of Indian music, Sarbari Da continued his passion even after he was rendered immobile by Parkinson’s disease.
I saw Sarbari Da closely for the first time in August 2011. We were in Santiniketan to shoot a documentary on Ramkinkar Baij as a part of the retrospective curated by K.S.Radhakrishnan. After a long day’s shoot, though the crew was tired but hopeful about a spirited night, Radhakrishnan took all of us to Sarbari Da’s home, where at the drawing room he was sitting on a sofa like cot. His eyes showed happiness through thick glasses he worn. He scanned all of us without registering much of the details. We sat around him in different chairs. The crew started clicking pictures, so did I because I did not have anything else to do than be a part of that poignant moment of a Shishya meeting his ailing Guru after a gap of few years.
I looked at the master sculptor; he was diminutive in stature. He wore an impeccable short kurta and white pyjama. I had seen a few photographs of him wearing the same kind of clothes but I had never thought that the man would be so small. Age and ailment makes men small and humility makes them huge. Perhaps, confronting each of his works in previous years might have induced a larger than life picture of him in my mind. But this man in front of me was small and I remembered meeting the legendary writer, O.V.Vijayan during his last days in Delhi. He too was small and we all thought he was too huge as we thought a writer with a huge body only could have written those influential and path breaking novels like the Legend of Khasak and the Saga of Dharmapuri. But as the moments passed by his small physique was growing before me in leaps and bounds and he occupied the whole space where we were sitting, shrinking us into molecules of men.
With his shivering fingers Sarbari Da touched Radhakrishnan’s hands. Then he called out ‘Radhooo’. That was the only way through which he could express his love, happiness and gratitude for a shishya who once was an integral and inseparable part of his life. He ran his fingers through Radhakrishnan’s beard, exactly the way a child does to his bearded father. I witnessed a moment of role reversal here. Radhakrishnan was overwhelmed by this gesture. We were all choking for some reason; perhaps different reasons justifiable unto the person who felt the choking then. Soon, Sarbari Da, through his gestures and finger movements told Radhakrishnan that he wanted to make a portrait of his beloved Shishya. Radhakrishnan was speechless and so were we. This is what happens when old people remember young things. This is what happens when young people confront old memories.
Then we walked into the night leaving Sarbari Da to his shaky memories. When an artist dies, if I borrow an expression from Arundhati Roy, he leaves a hole in the scene, not just a hole, but a hole in his/her shape. However, we try to fit in, our contours will jut out. I am talking about those artists who did their works with their hands. Factory artists must be leaving holes in the shape of clouds.