Sunday, March 4, 2012
Un-Abort-Able Friends: To My Children Series 27
From a distance I could hear metal sticks striking against the cemented walkway. The sound is rhythmic; like music beat it comes in regular intervals. If I try to recapture the sound, it would be something like this- a firm hit on the ground and with this the metal piece at the end of it tells the earth, hold me. Then you hear, if only you have trained ears, a wheezing sound of leather grazing the ground. A moment of silence. Again you hear another sound of metal crushing the cement. Slowly the sound comes closer. It enters the dark and gloomy entrance that most of the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) flats have. Then the sound creeps up; the same sound and beats but now tapped in a different rhythm. The grazing of leather on the ground seems to be a bit laboured and the metal sounds a bit cautious. Slowly it comes up and it comes and stops in front of our door.
Mrinal and myself would be reading or writing or making love. When we hear this voice, we look at each other and a smile blooms on our lips. We know the meaning of that sound. We extract ourselves from whatever we are doing and rush to the front door. Before the door bell rings, we open the door. And we know who comes with that music of metal touching the ground. The man there at the door is none other than Shijo Jacob, then art student at the Jamia Millia Islamia, now a professional artist and an assistant professor in the Painting Department at the Fine Arts College, Mavelikkara, Kerala.
Shijo came to our life in Mayur Vihar Phase III with this music. And this music of his gait was created by the metal crutches that he carried with him. This handsome young man was affected by polio when he was seven years old. But against all odds, Shijo kept his spirit high and walked the distances that generally the healthy people do not dare to walk. Climbed the heights that people like us thought to be dizzying. Shijo Jacob is a handsome young man with a thick moustache and a smile that disarms anyone and invites him or her into an embrace. Whenever I think about Shijo and his smile, I think about soothing ring tones in some people’s mobile phones. You may be mad at those people and you really want to scream at them. You dial their number as if you were sticking the voodooist’s needle on an effigy. And finally the bell rings. No it does not ring. Instead, it plays out a song or a tune that melts you into a piece of helplessness. You really want to shout at the person who picks up the call. But when he really does that, you just ask, ‘how’s it going man?’
With such hearty smile Shijo had won everyone’s life when he was in Delhi. He lived with his sister’s family in a very small accommodation in Mayur Vihar Phase III and it was from there he did his works, pretty large canvases that expressed his pleasure and pain, philosophy and world view. Perhaps, Shijo Jacob was one of the first few artists in Delhi who had taken mediatic realism quite seriously and incorporated autobiographical narratives in that mode. I remember a body of works that Shijo had done in late 1990s, which should have really generated a serious discourse on the notion of disability and gender. Shijo painted his own disabled body along with the images of two super models on either side of him and titled the work as ‘Come, Model with Me’. Also he did a series of large paintings where he painted his polio affected body as an iconic image. Mrinal and myself presented Shijo in the shows curated by us doing that time. Unfortunately, the idea of curatorial practice was totally a non-starter at that time. Though our efforts were lauded by well wishers, our artists were not hugely picked up by the mainstream galleries.
Though I would write about my London experiences in one of the forthcoming chapters, I feel that it is pertinent to talk about physical disability in the context of Indian art. In 2003, I was awarded with the Charles Wallace India Trust Scholarship to do a post graduation in Creative Curating at the Goldsmiths College, University of London. I was very happy to have that opportunity and I was sure that the scholarship was awarded to me for my efforts to build up a scene of curatorial practice in Delhi during 1990s when none was talking about curatorial practice in the city. In London, I visited most of the public and private galleries. I was thrilled and at the same time I was sad too. What surprised me was the public awareness on disability. The low-floored buses had an appendage that would come out when a passenger on a wheel chair came to the door. Any public transportation system including the tube trains and taxis had this provision. All the galleries, both public and private had ramps and side bars that helped the people with disability move easily. The lavatories were a real revelation to me. I sneaked into the lavatories for the disabled to see how they are designed. Overwhelmed by these findings, I wrote a mail. I was an email activist since 1997.
I wrote a mail to all the gallerists in India asking them why they don’t have a ramp and disable friendly environments in their galleries. Shijo Jacob was my point of reference though I did not mention his name in the mail. I had seen him walking with us everywhere, to each opening (we did not have money to hire a taxi or auto). I had seen him climbing stairs of the private galleries with great difficulty. So when I was writing this mail and sending out to hundreds of people, I was literally furious. Soon came answers, out of that two of them surprised me. Many sent me sympathetic mails that said we needed urgent relook into our spatial designing of the galleries and public spaces. One gallerist in Mumbai wrote to me: ‘Never write to us such nasty mails. If you do, we will remove you from our mailing list.’ I think Mumbai gallerists have a special way of handling criticism. In 2009 a few gallerists came together to ban me from Indian art scene. They also sent mail out to many saying that I should be kept away from the scene.
One good mail that I got was from the senior artist Arpana Caur. She wrote to me: Johny, our Academy of Fine Arts and Literature at Siri Fort, has a ramp and our gallery is disable friendly.’ It was the only mail of consolation for me at that time. Sitting in the Goldsmiths’ computer room, seeing snowflakes falling like frozen sighs of the heavenly dames, I looked at Arpana Caur’s mail and felt happy. At least there was one gallerist/artist in India at that time to come out boldly and say that she was sensitive towards such issues. My relationship with Arpana Caur is a long one. She was one of the first few along with my mentor, K.S.Radhakrishnan, who had given me free spaces to do whatever I wanted at that point of time. We met Arpana Caur in 1996 and in the next year, she allowed us to use her gallery premises to conduct our activities. We used to hold fortnightly illustrated lectures and I can proudly say today that it was on this platform most of the successful artists learned their first lessons of public presentation and speech.
These illustrated lectures were really interesting. We honed our curatorial skills while the artist friends polished their presentation skills in this platform. When we proposed that we wanted to conduct regular slide shows and talks, Arpana Caur chalked out a plan. She said that she would give the space free and also she would give Rs.500 (Five Hundred) to the presenting artist. It was a great incentive. For us Rs.500 was a big amount then. Besides, Arpana Caur ordered tea and samosas for all the people. Though our idea was to have illustrated lectures, suddenly we faced a problem. None of us had a slide projector. Roy Thomas pitched in then. He procured a small manual slide projector that looked like a toy. It was a stand in device bought from Old Delhi for fifty rupees or so. We ran a few sessions with this projector and in the meanwhile K.S.Radhakrishnan gave us his German slide projector. This projector came to him from some other friend and was really old. Its service ended after a few sessions. It was then Atul Bhalla came to offer his services. His school, Mira Model School, Delhi, had a good projector and he brought that for our programs. After a few sessions, Atul Bhalla found it difficult to get the projector quite regularly from the school. It was then Arpana Caur came once again into the picture. She started offering another five hundred rupees so that we could hire slide projector from professional agencies. These sessions went on till 2001.
Once Shijo finished his post graduation from Jamia Milia Islamia, he was finding it difficult to continue his practice as studio spaces were costly in Delhi. I presented this case to Arpana Caur and she gave a huge sunny studio space to Shijo in the Academy of Fine Arts and Literature premises. This basement studio was also a hub of different activities. People from economically deprived societies came there to get training in stitching and other crafts. The space was noisy often as the girls worked kept talking to each other. This was no ideal studio for a serious young artist. However, as there was no other space available, Shijo had to work from the same studio for some months and he could produce some good works from there. Despite all the shortcomings of the studio in Arpana Caur’s place, one should acknowledge the fact that she was so considerate to the young and struggling artists of that time and was always ready to extent support to most of them. From the same studio, Shijo did a series of works, using the property documents of his family. This was work with strong conceptual orientations though it was not exhibited in Delhi.
Shijo was not the only struggler of that time. Getting a studio was a real problem for most of them. Josh P.S, a noted artist of this time who is promoted by Peter Nagy of Nature Morte was living a very tiny room near the Ashram fly over. In the adjacent rooms there lived kabadi walas, vegetable sellers, peddlers and so on. They all shared the same toilet and bathroom. We used to go to Josh’s room quite regularly and it was from here Josh did some of interesting works which he did not show to the world. One of the series that he did from here was the blood and semen series. During my visits to his room, after having tea made on portable gas stove, with rats as witnesses to our holy communion, we used to go to the ‘chat’ (terrace) of the building, where Josh inserted a surgical syringes into his veins that I held tightly for easy penetration. The blood thus collected was sprayed on the canvas in different patterns. They left a dark red stain on the canvas initially, then slowly turned into a dirt like pattern. The other series was done with semen collected by him quite diligently. And there were hair series and sweat series.
Somehow, Josh decided not to exhibit them though I exhorted him to come out with those works. Finally, we came out with a plan of exhibition. Though I did not call myself as the curator of the solo show of Josh, it was my idea to present his works in a very interesting but radical way. Josh booked a small gallery in the Garhi Artists’ Village in Delhi. In the middle of the gallery, we stacked up all the works (canvases) that he had done during those years. It stood like a rectangular block in the middle of the gallery. Along the walls we pasted post card size photographs of the same works in a row. And one additional element that Josh added to the whole display was the spreading of naphthalene balls on the floors of the gallery in order to conceptually show the idea of time and preservation. One afternoon I went to meet Josh at the Garhi Gallery and I saw him sitting in a chair dozing off. The glass doors of the gallery was closed and the smell of naphtha was strong in the air. It was suffocating. I called out Josh but he was not responding. With surging panic in my mind, I shook him up violently. As if from another world, Josh came back to Garhi Gallery. He looked at me with vague eyes. I pulled him out of the gallery and made him breath fresh air and washed his face with cold water. When I imagine that scene still a shudder passes through my spine.
I have a special association with Josh. He comes from Vakkom, my village. When I was in my village I did not know the existence of Josh. His elder brothers were my friend. I did not know their younger brother would become an artist. I met Josh first time in Baroda and then in Delhi. We were all struggling and Josh was desperate to have some money so that he could pay the rent of the rat infested hole. It was then an artist from Bangalore approached me to arrange his show in the Visual Art Gallery at the India Habitat Centre. Visual Art Gallery was not a happening place then. It had just started. This artist from Bangalore had booked the gallery. Some middlemen from Delhi had joined him, promising him that he would be sold like (MF) Husains. I was brought into the picture by a common friend and I worked towards making the show a reality. I totally disliked his works but the money that he offered was good (Rs.25,000/-) My job was to arrange the press, send out the invites, make the catalogue, write the catalogue and so on. Josh was my assistant in all these because I told him that part of the money would be given to him.
A few friends of Josh were doing screen printing to eke out a living. So we decided to get the invitation done by them. The invitation and envelop were ready and Josh brought them home. When I was looking at the invitation card I had an eerie feeling. Wasn’t something wrong there? I asked myself. The title of the show was given as ‘Reveries’. ‘Reveries’ means day dreaming. But I found the spelling on the card and cover as ‘RIVERIES’. It was a spelling mistake. We did not have any money to re-print the whole thing again. Nor did I want to let the person know that we had done a mistake. So I brainstormed myself and came with this fantastic idea- write a line just below the word ‘Riveries’- ‘River of Memories’. I consulted Josh on this and he said it was possible. So within that night we got all the cards and covers re-serigraphed with this phrase ‘river of memories’. The situation was saved. First Josh was introduced to the artist and his friends as a young photographer specializing in catalogue photography. And on the eve of the show, Josh was again brought in as my assistant in displaying. By that time, I think, they knew that Josh was being multitasked. Fortunately they paid him a few thousand rupees with which he could pay off his debts.
On the opening evening, I found Josh absolutely sad. I did not know why he was sad. The show was sparsely attended by the art community. It was mostly attended by a group of people who did not have anything to do with art. They had come as friends of the artist and the middlemen. They had a good party and left. Josh took me into the darkness outside. He said, ‘Johny, you are doing a wrong thing. You are prostituting yourself.’ Then he broke down. I did not know what to tell him. What he said was true and I was prostituting myself. My aim was to get some money and arrange some money for Josh. I could not say anything to Josh for some time. Once he finished with his sobbing we went inside as if nothing had happened between us. Next day, by afternoon I took Josh to the DND Flyover in Delhi. At lonely stretch I stopped my bike. We stood facing each other. We looked at the vast expanse of grass and marsh down there and the misty horizon at the end. We cried. We held our hands tightly and cried till we felt light. There was a conclusion to that story. The cheque worth of Rs.25000/- given to me by that artist bounced (I still have that cheque in my archives). Mrinal and I went to the place where the middlemen stayed. The neighbours told us that they had sold all their furniture and left the place. Years later, while strolling in Trivandrum with a friend, I came across one of them. He did not recognize me. Some sort of rage came in mind. I wanted to go and slap him on his face. But I restrained and walked off.
When I talk about Shijo and Josh, I cannot forget Binoy Verghese. An absolute romantic who sang beautifully when he got high on spirit, Binoy was a part of our life. In his large eyes, sadness was a permanent bhava. His curly hairs embroidered his perennial gloom with dark velvet. However, when he smiled the all his sadness dissolved into it, the way the salt toy got lost into the sea water. Binoy too was struggling hard to eke out a living. He did not work in firms or agencies. Instead, he borrowed money from his well wishers and kept working on his canvases. Once he managed to get a funding from a rich friend to go to Canada and spend almost a year there at the Banff art centre. Like many who came back from abroad after studies or residencies, Binoy also found himself nowhere. Then he found a place to stay near Safdarung and started working from Garhi studios. The penury of those days were so intense that the canteen owner in the Garhi studios stopped giving him food on credit. Then he had to shift to another makeshift canteen in the Garhi premises run by a young boy who took pity on Binoy and provided him with food. Jomy Thomas of Malayala Manorama was another anchor for Binoy Verghese. Jomy occasionally helped him with small amounts.
Like Shijo, Binoy too was one of the earliest exponents of mediatic realism after Shibu Natesan and many others from Mumbai. Binoy mostly painted his friends and dancers. He painted his own image on canvases in various performative postures. These works were exhibited in the shows titled ‘Small but Significant’, ‘CAN’, ‘There is a Place in the Sun’ and so on curated by Mrinal and I. A major breakthrough came for Binoy when he painted an eight by five canvas with the image of a palace dining room with chandeliers and laid out food. What made that impressive painting provocative was the dominant image of a poor girl sitting right on the top of that dining table with a cold look on her face. This painting was quite haunting and at the same time he had done another painting titled ‘The Vaudevillian Nights’. I had taken both these images to many people thinking that they would take an interest in them. One young gallerist in Delhi told me that she would like to see the original. I took the painting in a small pick up van to the gallery. She liked the painting and kept it for a day.
The next day she called me up and said that she was not interested in the painting. So I had to go and pick up the work and give it back to Binoy. After a week or so, when I was watching the European film festival at the Siri Fort Auditorium (we had enough time to catch up with any cultural festivals happening in town then). Then my mobile buzzed. It was the gallerist. She wanted the painting once again. I had to leave the movie half way. I went to Garhi. Got a pick up van, collected the painting and went to the gallery. She kept the work with her. After a few days, she said I could collect the money. It was around forty thousand rupees. I was so glad and I gave the money to Binoy. That was the happiest day in Binoy’s life.
However, I was not in a position to show Binoy as a person to the world. Not because he was not handsome. He was handsome enough to enter into the dreams of girls who were dreaming the dreams of oasis in deserts. But he was not equipped to face the world in terms of proper clothes. I did not want Binoy to go before a gallerist in tatters. Interestingly and surprisingly, the gallerist had not asked me about the whereabouts of the artist whose works she had started selling. I deliberately hid the fact that Binoy was a Delhi based artist. My idea was to collect enough money for Binoy so that he could shift to a decent accommodation and get new clothes. He could do it in a few month’s time as the gallerist was buying Binoy’s works through me. Let me take this opportunity to tell you that either I was a fool or I was too much filled with idealism. I was not taking any commission from anybody for the services that I was doing to both the gallerist and Binoy. I dutifully gave the money to Binoy. Perhaps, he also did not know the games of the market so he did not ask me whether I needed any money. Blissfully unaware of the ways in which the market worked we remained perfect friends unhampered by the arrival of money.
The game did not last long. I was about to make my fourth sales for Binoy. I had already informed him of the gallerist who was buying or dealing with his works. I also told him that he should not meet the gallerist until I told him. One day I went to the gallery with an image of Binoy’s work and to my surprise I found him standing inside the gallery, looking at the works displayed there. He was now wearing better clothes. But the confidence level was not high enough. The gallerist came out to see me and it was not possible for me to play the game of deception anymore. I introduced Binoy to the gallerist and bowed myself out of the whole deal. But the gallerist, Binoy himself and myself know for sure that my role as a middle person in the whole affair was not that of a broker who was looking for some commission. I have never taken any commission from anybody in any of my dealings with art. I was always eager to help out friends. Then happened the path breaking solo show of Binoy at the Palette Art Gallery in New Delhi. I wrote the catalogue and the catalogue was a super hit, so was the show. Binoy had arrived with that show.
There is a reason why I talked about these three friends. They were with me when I was really going through the worst phase of my life. As I told you at some stage, we were not looking for setting up a proper family with kids. We were planning to lead a life without kids. Whenever, I think about those days, I feel myself like a stupid. Had it not been you, how boring and meaningless our life would have been. Sometime in 1998, we decided to bring a child in our life. I clearly remember that the decision was taken during one of our trips in Kerala. We were staying in a hotel in Kochi and while making love, I whispered into Mrinal’s ears that I was coming in her with a beautiful mission. And she received me with a lot of love. We knew that it was not one of the frolicking moments. In that moderate hotel room we were engaged in a divine purpose; to prepare for your arrival.
After a month and a half in Delhi, Mrinal told me that she was pregnant. Our happiness knew no bounds. We thought our life had changed suddenly. Everything started looking different. We were having different kinds of aspirations and dreams since that strip up of plastic turned red and confirmed pregnancy. But during the third month, Mrinal said she was not feeling well and blood spots were seen. We went to a hospital immediately. They made certain tests and told that the foetus had stopped growing after one and half months. We did not know how to take that news. The gynaecologist advised an immediate removal of the dead foetus, which we understood as an abortion.
Mrinal was taken into the hospital room. Those were not the days of mobile phones. I did not want to call any one of my friends who had landlines. Mrinal was brought back after an hour or so. She was lying sedated. Suddenly she was looking weak and pale. I felt a deep sense of guilt for putting her through this pain. I did not know what they did not her. Doctor told me that she will be under sedation for a whole day. I did not have much to do. I was totally disappointed. And during all those hours one person was with me- that was Shijo Jacob. He did not utter a word. He did not try to console me. He did not try to cheer me up. He just sat there with me. His presence was a great solace. No words would suffice my gratitude for him for his silent presence on that day.
May be I can conclude this chapter here. But I want to say something more. Back home in Mayur Vihar Phase III, life suddenly looked meaningless. I was not a believer so I did not go to any temple. But somehow I felt like reading something that was not a part of my life for a long time. I started reading ‘Adhyatma Ramayan’ by Thunchathu Ezhuthacchan. I had not touched this book for several years though it was there with me as a part of my collection of literature. But this time, each verse appeared before me with a different meaning and it soothed me to the core. But Mrinal was angry. Reading Ramayana was a death related ritual. I don’t know it was a natural reaction or seeking a philosophical anchor or a deeper sense of understanding that in that abortion I had actually lost a son or daughter who would have changed my life forever.
Hospitals, labs, tests, regular visits to gynaecologists and so on. This became a ritual for the years that followed. Mrinal started putting on weight thanks to the hormonal changes came to her through medication. Two more abortions happened in the following years. And finally we lost hope. We were thinking of adopting children. Things were not happening the way we wanted. But throughout those turbulent years these three people-Shijo Jacob, Josh PS and Binoy Verghese-stood with us along with many other friends. And all of them were happy when you came in 2005 and 2009 respectively.