When Christian Uhlmann recounts those good old days of his incessant traveling, rebellion and his Hippy days words and symbols mix up, climates and countries overlap, memories get dilated and the locations become irrelevant. What becomes relevant is the story of a man who has many lives in one guise; the guise of a wanderer. Today, Uhlmann looks much older to his age; the furrows that have channeled his tanned skin by the heat of the southern tropic are the tell tale evidences of his journeys. For him they look now remote. At the verandah of the one room cottage, one of the few that he has made in a three acre plot that he had acquired three decades ago, he sits on the red oxide floor, pulling at a beeri. Like an old general from the stories of Marquez he is full of memories and stories. I look around for a hammock in which I could imagine and image Uhlmann lying down and chewing the cuds of his yester years collected slowly but steadily. There is no hammock there. But this barefoot man moves around in Thiruvannamalai both on feet and by his scooty like M.F.Husain had once done in several other cities in India. While Husain’s bare feet had invited media attention, Uhlmann’s are taken as natural. None trains a camera lens at Uhlmann’s feet. But none could avoid training their eyes at Uhlmann’s face. There is a sinner and a saint living there; a philosopher and a jester; a rebel and the one who has succumbed to his own decisions; a bonded one and a liberated one; one with a pair of wings and one with a huge chain around his neck and feet. But the most interesting thing about Christian Uhlmann is that he carries all those with a lot of easiness and flair.
Uhlmann is an artist who uprooted from himself from his native Switzerland and decided to travel the world to see people and know them. The Hippies were all over the world. Still their tribe was a minority. They moved towards those climes where the materialistic philosophy took a back seat and let the spiritual and carnal liberalism took the van guard position. Carrying the weapons of nothingness for a battle of love in the war fields of dreams, music, hash and poppies felt so good when it was seen on the others and Uhlmann took no time to join the tribe as a new initiate. The Hippies erased all the man made boundaries in the world and crossed over to many continents; they did have passports and other travel documents. But with different languages and different tastes how did they know each other? Hence, they developed a common language; the language of hair. They grew hair as if there was no tomorrow. They became as strange as the ancient sages in a busy city street. A Hippy could recognize another Hippy easily by hairs. The other universal code was the cloths; they stripped themselves to the minimum and wore all those exotic and eclectic dresses; a trend which is a diehard one and has been followed like a genetic code by the rebels all over the world even today. Bodies were their landscapes where they could mark new territories for themselves letting their bodies to bear all those tattoos. They had music and smoke to burn out all the worries of the world.
One may spiritually overcome all the limitations but when it comes to the crossing of boundaries, legal papers, your looks and attitude everything become very crucial in getting the visa. Uhlmann remembers all those days of hoodwinking the authorities. As Uhlmann was planning to go to Australia from some other country his hip long hair became a huge issue. One day he was turned away by the authorities and like an impish attitude, the one which all the Hippies adopt for survival, next morning Uhlmann turned up at the office of the visa authorities, now with the hairs trimmed clean, even showing his nape. The authorities were surprised and the passage was allowed. Uhlmann says how he tricked the authorities. He bought a cheap wig and pushed all his natural hair into it and went to the visa office. He also says that perhaps the authorities smelt a rat there but they let him go. Then it became a ritual for him. Wherever he sensed the trouble with the hair, he fished out the wig, which had become by now a constant travel companion, and wore it with confidence. He says that it became a game even for self amusement. “In one of those days, I lost my girl friend and car,” remembers Uhlmann wistfully but with a smile filling in his eyes. He says as if that was something bound to happen. May be after having a series of girl friends and now Rani, a Tamil woman for wife, Uhlmann seems to be terribly enjoying the fate of the one who had cajoled his girl friend to Kabul. Allah is great. Afghanistan did not remain what it used to be since then. The reason may be political; but god has different ways of punishing people for betrayals.
Ulhmann came to India in late 1970s. As an artist he carried his works with him always. Besides, he always carried his flutes. Like Anil Janardanan, Uhlmann is also not a trained musician but both of them play music for their amusement. They have a musical sense and could create captivating music at times. But when anything goes excess it become a bit unbearable for those who have a decent musical sense. Uhlmann has a collection of musical instruments that include flutes from different countries and of different make; bamboo reeds and sandal wood. The latest acquisition is a xylophone that he has picked up from a Swiss flea market last year when he visited his parental family with Rani. The story of Uhlmann’s visit to India, to begin with Goa is interesting. While travelling the south east Asian countries, Uhlmann came to know that there was a place called Goa and which is an Eden for the international Hippies. Uhlmann reached Goa sooner than later. “The moment I touched down at Goa, I found out that in terms of Hippy eccentricities I was nothing in front of those lion like guys and girls who had taken Hippy life into a different level,” Uhlmann chuckles. He spent some time there and then started travelling India. He even spent some time in Kanvashram, ten kilometers from my home in Vakkom. And it was in one of those days Shibu met Uhlmann and became friends.
Thiruvannamalai was a natural destination for Uhlmann though today he is more like a native who does not take much interest in the Ashram related meditation and other things. Uhlmann goes to the temple town almost daily, primarily to drop his sister in law’s daughters in school, whose care he has taken upon his happily. Secondly he goes to the Ashram area to have a cup of tea. It is interesting to know that while most of the people in the Ashram area know Uhlmann as Christian, in the village where he has set up his home and cottages, most of the people in the neighborhood like to acknowledge him as Rani Christian; though people recognize Rani’s presence in Christian’s life and as the owner of the properties that Uhlmann has owned there, for the friends of Uhlmann the annunciation comes as ‘Rani’s Christian’. It is so heartening to see a man who has travelled the world has finally decided to become Rani’s Christian, which I find as a great surrendering of all kinds of ego. Uhlmann is happy about the kind of life that he is leading. He has his cows, dogs, hens and Turkey hens, trees and plants to tend and take care of. He has his memories around Ashram though he does not go there anymore.
My meeting with Christian for the first time was quite by chance. In 2014, when I went to Thiruvannamalai for the first time, Abul Azad, the photographer and director of the Ekalokam Trust for Photography who lives in Thiruvannamalai, organizing a lot of photographic activities was having an exhibition of Uhlmann at his own studio cum gallery. Uhlmann was not presenting any of his paintings. He mostly presented some drawings and sculptures made out of palm leaves and stems. They were looking mostly like the works of the tribal artists. Shibu was invited to inaugurate the show because he had a different connection with Uhlmann. Though both Shibu and Uhlmann had forgotten the incident of their meeting and spending time together in early 1980s in Varkala and Trivandrum (then Shibu was a fine arts student) Azad became instrumental in bringing them together. I was also present at the inaugural function where Shibu had recounted the friendship he and Uhlmann shared once upon a time. Shibu had done two portrait drawings of Uhlmann and had given to him. Interestingly Uhlmann kept those drawings as his precious possessions and once showed them to Abul Azad. It was Azad who recognized that it was the same Shibu who became the Shibu Natesan now. The opening of the show was a happy reunion of sorts for both Shibu and Uhlmann.
Now as we are in Thiruvannamalai, Shibu would like to do an oil portrait of Uhlmann. Though many people are happy to model for an artist, Uhlmann does not seem to be so keen on sitting for long time before an artist. He sits with his long legs folded, on the kitchenette slab on the side of the verandah where Shibu has set up his easel, canvas, paints and brush. Uhlmann lights and beedi and drags at it. While Shibu paints I take a look at the works of Uhlmann, which he has collected in two big albums. He paints like a company school painter. His perspective is more like Chirico the Italian painter. He has painted most of the Indian monuments while he was travelling all over India. He also has painted the people. A cursory look at the works of Uhlmann would show that he is like an itinerant painter, looking not for the images and events but for his own reflections in whatever he sees around him. Hence, in most of the paintings we see the obliqueness of his vision; he looks at them tangentially often unsettling the proportions of the architecture and reducing the people and their figures into schematic patterns. He gives a lot of attention to the perspective lines which reveal the artist’s position and perspective of things. Uhlmann is also a good photographer and has taken quite good black and white photographs. The portrait painting done by Shibu is finished in two sittings. To witness the second sitting Anil Janardanan comes with one of his friends and he plays different kinds of music in different instruments. Both Anil and Uhlmann have got a child like enthusiasm for musical instruments. Finally the portrait is done. Uhlmann is overwhelmed. He immediately takes a photograph of it and uploads it as his facebook profile picture. Soon follow the comments from his friends from other continents. ‘Why so sad?’ is the prominent of questions in the comment box. Rani, the better half of Uhlmann comes to take a look. She immediately comments on the apparent ‘smugness’ of the portrait. She is not happy about the portrait because her husband is sad looking in it.
Uhlmann is not sad. Perhaps while he was sitting for the portrait he was with himself; those rare moments. Shibu has an explanation for it; people generally do not like portraits because they think that they are not ‘beautiful’ in the portraits. When they model, in the initial moments they are conscious of their looks. So they put on appearances. Slowly, the painter as well as the model gets into their own respective zones of introspection. Painter sees what is in the model in those moments and the model is not aware of how he or she looks like. Finally, when the portrait is finished, they want to see those conscious moments of ‘beauty’ and ‘appearance’. But the artist has captured their ‘lost moments’, which need not necessarily be beautiful. The portrait has come out well. I look at Uhlmann’s feet. I remember one photograph of Husain’s feet taken by Nemai Ghosh. Those feet looked absolutely clean and unaffected by weather. Husain’s was a performative act. He took care of the looks of his feet even when he was not wearing shoes for the media glare. Uhlmann walks barefoot for his own beliefs and life style. He does not do it for the media. I have seen some of the photographs in which Uhlmann is seen wearing shoes. Those are the occasions of his show opening in Switzerland or elsewhere. With or without shoes Uhlmann is a genuine person. I look at him. Here is a person who has dared the violent of seas now seen sitting at a rain puddle and see the paper boats made by him just floating by.