The person whom I have been waiting for all this while looking at the glass like sunlight falling on the courtyard of Chemapazhanthy Sree Narayana Gurukulam finally arrives. He is Gopikrishna, artist and my beloved friend. I had been to his home-studio last year and had written about his works and life. His wife had served me with one of the best and simple meals that I ever had in my life. Gopikrishna’s is a pleasant house with a lot of trees covering it from an open view. If they serve food on the floor I could eat directly from there without hesitation for this couple keeps their house so clean that one would wonder whether their idea of falling in love or even making love is all about cleaning the house. With no assistants and no made servants they achieve this feat with so much of creative finesse. This time I do not want to disturb their peace by barging into their home during the lunch time. When Gopikrishna comes, a smile and apology flank him on either side. The smile tells me that I am welcome to his circle of energy. The apology tells me that he has been busy with his daughter’s examination (she is in the tenth standard and Gopikrishna has just picked her up from school after the exam an dropped her back home and has come to meet me), hence the delay. I smile back at the smile and pat the back of the apology telling him ‘don’t worry.’ Gopikrishna has a small shoulder bag and I know that he has brought a book for me; a book I have been coveting ever since I came to know that Gopikrishna has published his collection of stories privately and has given a copy to a friend to hand over to me. But that friend somehow did not give the book to me. So here I have Gopikrishan and his book. However, I do not ask him to give it to me right away. Gopikrishna tells me that we could go to the Vayalavarathu Veedu and sit there for some time.
Once again Vayalvarathu Veedu is in focus. Gopikrishna tells me that when he was a school kid, he used to come here to absorb in the spiritual vibes once this place had. But now everything is changed. “Look at this canopy,” Gopikrishna says that much. And I know what he means. I have just gone through the same feeling of shock and dejection a few minutes back. We sit there on the granite steps and talk generally about art and life. When you see someone like Gopikrishna or an artist friend living in a village absolutely happy about what he or she is doing, somewhere in your heart you feel a tinge of jealousy; why you are not able to do it. Yes, you are able to do it. But why you are not able to achieve that kind of tranquility. I am a person who could sit in one place for hours, days and even months on end. I do not need any particular environment to keep me calm and tranquil. If I ask for something to be in one place for a long time, that would be a few books or some pictures to look at. But Gopikrishna’s aloofness and retreat is charming. For him it may not be felt in the same way. Gopikrishna had studied in Delhi and had experienced the allurement of urban life. He left Delhi because he realized that he was not meant to be there. So a person who has naturally chosen a rural life, it feels so natural; there is no romance in it but there is a lot of love in there, I could see it. “Look at those letters, don’t they look like snakes?” Gopikrishna points at the name of the liquor baron embossed there as the donor of the canopy. Here is a funny connotation in the word ‘snake’ and an irony too. Just a few paces across that embossed plaque, from a tree trunk there hangs a placard that reads, ‘Do not make liquor and sell it for it is poison.’ Sree Narayana Guru had seen how the Ezhava community, which used to consider toddy tapping as their livelihood and at time even brewing it, going from bad to worse situation due to this liquor consumption, lack of education and aversion for unity. So as a social reformer Guru had made this great exhortation: ‘Do not make liquor and sell it for it is poison.’ But the creamy layer of the Ezhava community today is constituted by the liquor barons as a historical irony. In Kerala, those people who stagger along the roads after getting drunk or hopelessly crawl on the floor in total inebriation, are called ‘paamb’ which means ‘snakes’. I understand the pun and we have a good laugh.
At times, I wonder whether there is a Parsi in Gopikrishna. Parsis are famous for maintaining anything in their pristine quality and originality. They are supposedly having most of the vintage items intact in their own collections for their immaculate sense of maintenance of which motor cycle maintenance has prominence. As we walk out of the Gurukulam campus I ask how Gopikrishna has come. I think of asking him to drop me at a bus stop so that I could catch a bus to home. But Gopikrishna holds my hand and insists that I should go with him and have some lunch at his home. I know that it would be a burden for the lady of the house if there is an unannounced guest for lunch or dinner. But Gopikrishna would not let me go. So we are near his motor bike which has a shining cherry red color. A sense of déjà vu engulfs me. This is the dream bike that every college going boy wished for three decades back. Gopikrishna has a Hero Honda 100 cc bike which looks as if it was just taken out of the showroom. Hero Honda launched this bike in late 1980s changing the history of two wheelers in India. Bajaj was the market leader and its scooter variants in different brand names, Bajaj Super, Bajaj Priya, Bajaj Chetak and so on had brought in a change on the India roads and revolutionized the way families moved as a single unit. Many a cartoonist had made cartoons on the Bajaj Scooter travelling. The daring ones used to go for the Enfield Bullets. However, the youngsters preferred Yezdi, a brand variant from the Jawa motors. Rural roads were ruled by Rajdoot that used to make a sound like (Utattatt…trrrrrr). Then came the biggest collaborative experimentation in two wheel industry in India. Hero and Honda put their hands together to bring out the first 100 cc four stroke engine bike. The catch line for the new vehicle was ‘Fill it Shut it Forget it’. This bike could go on for many kilometers in a single liter. The cost conscious middle class reveled on this bike. Yamaha’s 100 cc bike with two stroke engine, though fuel efficient could not stand in competition with the Hero Honda 100 cc bike.
Here Gopikrishna has one of those first series of Hero Honda 100 cc bikes. And he has a story to tell about it. Gopikrishna had an Enfield Bullet Classic. After using it for three years he thought of selling it off as it was not working for him. He used to maintain that bike too well and it was in a very pristine condition when he sold it off. All those years, his first bike, this Hero Honda was lying there, only used occasionally. Then Gopikrishna decided to give it a new lease of life. He took it to one of the efficient mechanics in town and asked him to restore it. The problem that he found at that time was this; though the engine parts were available, the body parts were not. A few years back Hero and Honda had separated ways with Honda separately launching its own new age bikes for Indian markets. Hero Honda, in the hay days of their collaboration itself had stopped the production of the 100 cc bikes for they had other popular brands like Splendor, Sleek and so on. Gopikrishna and the mechanic put their heads together to create the body parts and restored the bike to showroom condition. I see that right in front of me. From Chempazhanthy SN College, the boys and girls have just come out. They are hanging out under a tree and most of them have new age bikes and scooties with them. When Gopikrishna gets the bike out of its stand, all the eyes of those youngsters are trained at this bike. They talk to each other in hushed tone as if it were an exotic beauty just passing by. I enjoy the reflected glory as I climb on it as the pillion rider. The bike starts moving. Gopikrishna is a medium pace rider. He does not want to show off to anybody; not even unto himself. I could hear the heart of the machine throbbing, thud thud thud thud. The continuous four strokes of the engine is music to the ears. If you keep listing to the four stroke engine sound you could sleep or doze off. I had experienced it and many artists in India in their struggling days have experienced it; the soothing lullaby of a four stroke engine. As we go, Gopikrishna tells me that he restored the bike for some reason. He says that this is the bike that has seen all his love pangs. He has taken his love all over by this bike. It is on this bike they talked out all their dreams against the gushing winds that blew half of their dreams away from them.
At home, Indira, Gopikrishna’s beautiful and happy wife serves a simple lunch. It is so simple a lunch that it has unparalleled taste. I eat without leaving a morsel in the plate. Then we go upstairs where Gopikrishna’s studio is. Last time, when I visited him here the mango tree on the terrace was laden with fresh mangos. This time too the mango tree shows its humility with all those fruits, big green bulbs, like a proud mother showing off her talented children with all humility she could muster up. Gopikrishna has never stopped painting. He swims every day in a nearby swimming pool; he takes sun bath every day at his terrace. In his frail figure one could see the positive and calm energy of health beaming. There are five paintings all ready on the easels. Watercolors are also stacked up on a table. The drying and fresh oil color tubes are meticulously arranged on a table. All the tables in the studio are fitted with wheels so that without disturbing the calmness of the studio he could roll them to any side that he wants. All the paintings have a yogi like figure in it; a sage who seems to be absolutely unaware of what is happening around him. At the same time, he has the reigns of a many headed beast walking. So many different creatures are around him. All these creatures, Gopikrishna says, are he himself. This is how one lives; many lives and strange lives. But they are not let loose. They are trained and tamed by a power that takes the shape of a yogi or Siddha. “I have been making a lot of drawings of these Siddhas and these paintings developed from there.” Though, a novice to Gopikrisha’s paintings would think that they are surreal, they all are ‘realism’ for Gopikrishna. “This is how things are. What one feels as reality in the heart is real for him/her. It is not surreal or irreal. It is real. We can work only on realism and on the real only,” Gopikrishna says. His words echo the teachings of Yogavasishtam.
Why Siddhas and Yogis? “Everyone needs some training, taming and directing at some stage in life,” says Gopikrishna. For him life was not going so smoothly after his education. He was already married and had a son by then. He used to do some teaching job and that too was lost. Gopikrishna wanted to paint. But there is a stage in everybody’s life when one doubts whether the path taken is right or wrong. One needs assurance of some kind. A fruit seller could give you that assurance in that moment. A road sweeper or a scavenger could do that. But you have to meet that person to impart that knowledge to you. “It was when I decided to go to Poonthura Swamy,” says Gopikrishna. There is an interesting story behind Poonthura Swamy. From somewhere an avdhoot appears in the sea side village, Poonthura (six kilometers south west from Trivandrum city) and he spends time there for many years. He lives like a mad person but people feel that there is something in him. Soon a village officer from Thakkala (now in Tamil Nadu) comes to Poonthura and sits with the avdhoot. Then he does not go back. One day the avdhoot disappears. The village officer now stays permanently there. He leaves all his worldly ties. His does not eat any food. He smokes beedi. People bring beedi and agarbatti as offerings. He does not talk. He just sits there smoking beedi. But there is a huge pull towards him. Siddhas and yogis come from different places as the bees come to flowers to collect honey. While a student in college, Gopikrishna had gone to meet Poonthura Swami. When he was in trouble and he needed that assurance and direction in live, he decided to go and meet Poonthura Swami again. This time he bought some beedis and agarbattis. Indira accompanied him. He sat in front of the Swami for a long time. Indira insisted and pleaded with Swami to speak something. Gopikrishna remembers: “I had nothing to ask except a question. Could I continue painting? He nodded. That was it.” Gopikrishna says that there was no looking back since then. With or without money he kept on painting and today Gopikrishna feels blessed and directed by Poonthura Swami. “We are beasts inside and we need taming. What you see in these paintings is nothing but self disciplining. It is painful but quite liberating.”
It is time to leave. Downstairs in the drawing room, Indira has made a semi sweet dish and coffee. One feels a motherly presence in there. From the walls, the paintings done by late Sreedharan Nair, Gopikrishna’s father look at us. They are re-rendering of Ravi Varma’s paintings. They are not copies but slightly different re-interpretations. The drawing room suddenly becomes a part of the museum. It has some beautifully laid vintage furniture. “Slowly but steadily I collected them,” says Gopikrishna. Like his motor bike, this age old furniture also shines even in the reflected sunlight. Gopikrishna gives me his book; a collection of stories titled ‘Rahasyangalude Pusthakam’ (the Book of Secrets). I flip through them and ask when he wrote the stories. He tells me that he started writing stories when he was in college itself. “But they took many years to get the final shape. You could see the chronology and see myself there.” Gopikrishna says that his stories are not different from his paintings. “There is a perceived reality and a lived reality. These stories are the lived reality of my life,” says Gopikrishna. I put the book carefully in my bag. We come out and once again I am the pillion rider on that beautiful bike. At Sreekaryam junction, Gopikrishna drops me and bids a warm farewell and leaves. I see a multi-headed monster riding back on a huge fish with wheel for its fins. Then I see a long thread coming out of his Gopikrishna’s waist and running to a sea shore somewhere near Poonthura.