Thursday, August 14, 2014

Travelers in a Storyland

(Shibu Natesan sketching a Lambadi tribe girl)

Stories of travelers, especially when recounted by travelers themselves, evoke a lot of curiosity, respect and admiration amongst the listeners. Travel worn people gather around food or anything that make them warm, and share their experiences; often these stories retold amongst the peer group of travelers are often taken in silence. If there is a fool in the tavern or inn who is just there to entertain people, at some stage even he would turn silent for he too knows for sure that even the best of his histrionic abilities would not match up with the hardship undergone by these travelers. When heard by a young woman, from behind the curtain of her father’s house, even the moor’s complexion turns fair and lovely too. With each word that he utters, her heart skips a beat, in anxiety she shivers, in a passion she burns and obviously she would fall in love with him as she comes to understand the scars on his body as experiences of life. There are people who come to the taverns in order to tell the story, in order to make others tell it. He may not be a shrink who helps others to shed their inhibitions by recalling their dreadful pasts. But by revealing his own sad stories, he makes them cry and crying is infectious; it makes the witness to cry. Tears and laughter possess people like the fragrance of Arabian scents. They toss people like ships caught in storms. May be the end of each journey also would bring tears without words. I ask why I shed silent tears when I was about to leave the Old (prayer) Hall in Ramanashram in Thirivannamalai? Did I listen to the stories that Ramana Maharshi was telling me on those days of my sojourn there with my beloved friend, Shibu Natesan?

By now at least a few of you might have recognized the references that I have just used in the first paragraph. Andrei Rublov of Tarkovsky, Othello of Shakespeare and Zahir of Paulo Coelho. I could have said a title and then said ‘by’ so and so. I avoid using ‘by’ here because I want to make the characters referred here belong to the authors who had created them. Characters are free once they are rendered on paper and they don’t belong to the author anymore once his purpose of narration is over. But somehow I want to make the characters, incidents, pictures and everything, belong to somebody; an author. It is easy to declare the death of an author. It is easy to say that the sign and signified are different. It is easy to say that meaning changes according to the reader. But at times, I think the author need to be alive and be attached with his character. I think it is the time to revive the dead author. An author should live even if the Romeos must die. Theoretical facilities have helped us in coordinating revolutions both in speech and deed, and in class room and in the market place, yet sing and signified are tied together in an invisible relationship. They are like a couple about to be divorced or divorced for long, but still thinking about wrecking revenge on each other. Hence, I want to recount the story of my journey with Shibu to the places that I had never been before, keeping the authorial voice intact. I do not want to be invisible; I want to be present and gradually fade. Initially the author speaks for the work of art and years later, works of art speak for the author. It is the fate of the author to belong to the work of art that he has created once for all. Remember one could sire an emperor as well as a pauper.

(Myself at Shibu's Studio. pic by Shibu Natesan)

This trip has been over due; the trip to Thiruvannamalai. Each time I was invited to visit the place by friends who have already settled there, I thought the time was not right. Nothing was preventing me from going there. Friends have inviting, their hospitality has been legendary and attractive stories about the place have been abundant. It was almost a decade back that I came to know about Thiruvannamalai from Shibu. May be I knew about the place and I knew about Ramana Maharshi. Shibu had said that he gave thousands of rupees to the mendicants who frilled the roads of Thiruvannamalai with saffron clothes, dreadlocks and pleas for alms. I thought that was obscene; spending thousands of rupees on beggars was a bit too much for me. Then the times were different. People in the art scene had a lot of money and when there is a lot of hard cash in your hand, it is imperative to find avenues to send them adequately. You do not feel like giving it away on charity back at home or elsewhere because you always feel that they do not deserve that charity and even you are afraid that the charity spent back at home could be taken for arrogance. So it is always good to spend on beggars who really need it as they do not do much of work other than saying an occasional ‘Om Namah Shivaya’ with folded hands. Beggars and dogs remember people very well. As I walk along the streets of Thiruvannamalai with him, I experience his popularity amongst the beggars, first hand. They have matured and he too has matured. Today he does not flow money to their hands; he is discreet. But he is very caring when he talks to the mendicants. They know him. And some of them, he says, are not seen anymore there. They have vanished; they may be dead or gone to the better places for begging.

Charity could have been the last thing to goad to me to Thiruvannamalai. I thought the calling had not yet come. So the postponement was natural. Besides, I am not a born-traveler. I do not ‘enjoy’ my trips to the lands hitherto unknown to me. I do not get excited by new experiences. Therefore the idea of travelling is a bit tiresome for me. However, this time the call came, with full force. I had no other way than going to the place, that too with the person who told me first time about it and had promised once that we would travel together when time and opportunity came. The call initially came from EtP, Ekalokam Trust for Photography, led by noted photography artist, Abul Kalam Azad. But somehow, it did not work out though it was a temporary postponement. Then came the call of Shibu, and this time it was hard to resist. When I reached Trivandrum, Shibu was already on trip to North Kerala and Karnataka with the noted novelist and essayist, P.Surendran. They visited Shravanabelagola in Karantaka and the surrounding areas in the Bellari District where Shibu extensively sketched the people from the Lambardi tribe. Shibu had driven his Gypsy car all the way and was pretty much tired when he came back home. When I visited him at his home, Chithralayam (House of Painting/s) at Attingal, he was not in a mood to drive again. Hence we decided to travel by bus. The original plan was to drive together but considering the nature of travel and the chosen destination, we decided to take a Volvo bus to Thiruvannamalai.

(Novelist P.Surendran in a Karnataka village, pic by Shibu Natesan)

We needed some warming up exercises before we undertook the journey.  Between us warming up could happen at any time with simple conversations which often go for hours. May be we are two people who could talk to each other for hours without feeling the need to stop. Generally we talk about art, art related events, people and little bit of gossip. We discuss grave topics at times and without any effort switch to things really mundane and comical. We have this penchant for pulling each other’s legs for no reason and it saves us from bitching about others. When we feel the urge to bitch we bitch against each other. We make comical gestures of physical fighting, but from safe distances and go into silence without any warning. He takes up a sketch pad and sketch at times, when I pick up a book and read. Sometimes, we watch rains lashing at the trees and plants and at other times he gets up to make some tea, exotic tea bags dipped in hot water. We sit and sip tea and ruminate about our destinies aloud. Sometimes he feels that he has a huge studio and now he does not want such a huge studio as he enjoys more working in the open, drawing, sketching and painting people and places, objects and things or taking photographs just for the heck of it. Shibu’s photographs are aesthetically perfect and they show a painter’s touch. Upon a query, he told someone that he never would like to be known as a photography artist. May be this statement of his could console so many souls that exclusively subsist on photography. When he talks about the size of the studio, I think of my whole possession in the world; a bag of clothes and a lap top. We, two friends, rather brothers, stand at two opposite poles in our material circumstances. It must be one of the reasons why we have always been drawn to each other.  We are similar in many ways and dissimilar in too many other ways.

Our journey was supposed to start on 7th August 2014. We had three days in hand before that. So we decided to explore the nearby places. Though it was not a scheduled and chartered exploratory trip and there was no timeline created for such extempore expressions of our corporeal bodies, time was one important factor for us. This time, however time manifested in form of HMT watches. Anybody who enjoyed their first watch in the pre-liberal India would remember this brand name, HMT. There are a few stories that connect Shibu and myself with HMT watches. Yes, today, I wear an HMT watch gifted to me by Shibu himself almost a year before. But that alone does not suffice the story. I think our story of HMT watches demand a full chapter. You may wait for it in the next chapter. 

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