Slowly and steadily the hotel room that we occupy in Bangalore turns into an artist’s studio. After meeting the CKP management that has organized the art camp and illustrated lectures it has been decided that Shibu could work from the hotel room. He collects some art materials from the camp site though he has enough work equipments and materials stocked in the car for a prolonged creative journey. Any art material is a great supply for him for Shibu remembers those days in the Trivandrum Fine Arts College in early 1980s when he had joined there as a graduate student in the painting department. Money was the first thing that needed for any fine arts students to procure working materials and money was the last thing happening to all of them. A few lucky classmates were there in those days who with a good provision from homes used to use art materials lavishly. One of them was very liberal with his oil paint tubes. After the initial squeezing he used to throw them away. The other students use to wait for him to discard those tubes so that they could start working on their canvases. Though Shibu was never forced to that level of waiting, he knew the supply was very difficult to come by and the practice of preserving art materials became a habit. Even today, looking at him working on his canvases, using oil paints or on paper with water colors, and later cleaning of the foldable easel, one would understand how meticulous he is with his art materials. He squeezes very little paints on the palette and then does the second helping only when that is finished. I have noticed this character with many serious painters; a couple of months back when I visited A.Ramachandran in his Delhi studio, I asked him why he always painted two canvases, one large and one small, at the same time. He smiled at me (the wise smile of an eighty two year old artist) and said, “Each time I need to load the brush with colors and by the time I finish one stroke satisfactorily on the large canvas, I see still some paint is left on the brush and I just do not want to waste it, so I use it on the smaller canvas. It gives me two things at once; I save myself from not wasting paints which are precious and I get two paintings each time I start one.” Shibu too belongs to that classical Spartan thinking.
The moment an artist like Shibu decides to do a work of art, the whole energy level changes in them causing a total change in the energy level of the surroundings. I have experienced with many artists including Shibu. Once they are at it, the world ceases to exist for them. They may be talking to you or listening to some music but they are just used as surround sounds or ambience; they are not just there. In the world of painterly creations only the artist and his work exist. I have heard a lot about artists working from hotel rooms. In the lore pertaining to the Progressive Artists like F.N.Souza and M.F.Husain who had been itinerant savants in certain sense sojourning in various cities across the world used to paint in the hotel rooms often not really thinking about the future of those works. The patrons who used to pay the hotel bills collected those works and such benevolent patrons today sit on vast treasures as these artists have become the favorites in the auction market. Though Shibu enjoys painting from within the studios as much as he enjoys painting in the outdoors, he does not really like the idea of painting as collectives; as in the case of camp. The decision to paint from within the hotel room was to keep himself off from the set of artists working from large halls from their respective corners. Shibu as a recluse in nature prefers to be alone when he is working; only thing is that he enjoys people looking at him working when he does it in the outdoors. But the reason for such enjoyment is that none of them are his peer group artists who would perhaps compare their practice with his. Shibu has a performer in him and he enjoys that very much. When people come around and give him admiring looks he feels the happiness as an artist more than that he gets when he shows in an urban gallery. Shibu believes that painting is a language without having the limitations of a verbal or scriptural language. A painter or a singer could be appreciated easily by people because they are the people who create a space, a form and meaning without too much supportive paraphernalia. They are treated as people who could literally create very similitude of emotions via forms. And each onlooker wants to be a part of the whole picture making. They are not only envious of the painter but also of the model. Each one wants to be a model. Each one wants how he or she turns out to be when mediated via the mind, heart and skill of the artist. Shibu being a traveler and painter of landscapes has enjoyed the awe and reverence that people show when he does a landscape in the outdoors.
Ever since we are back in the hotel room Shibu looks out for something constantly. He is looking for something as the model for his painting. He sincerely wants a model in the room; a male or a female. But he feels that it would be rude to ask for a model from the organizers. For the time being he contemplates making me the model. He expresses this idea to me and I tell him not to do so because they may not expect my portrait for their museum collection. Besides, such an attempt would be a bit arrogant from Shibu side as they would think that he has taken an easy route of painting his fellow traveler (perhaps, they would have been happy had his fellow traveler been a woman and is a stranger to the larger art scene). As a writer I know how an artist feels like. I am too familiar to Shibu in this trip and making me the model of his painting would amount to the breathing of closeness; when two people travel together there is something called the unbearable lightness of being too close for a long time. The attraction for the human form that happens out of strangeness and distance may not happen in that case which would render an attempt on the portraiture a bit drab and dull. Rembrandt has painted his consort Madam Saskia several times. Dali has done the paintings of Gala innumerable times. The relationship here is more sexual. There is a sexual titillation in the creative portraiture. The artist is constantly objectifying a model here. His gaze actually measures up the model. The model is passive and is subjected to that gaze. Shibu has observed that many a times the models who sit for him (especially the woman models) complaint about their brooding looks or pensive looks in the portrait. They just do not like them being portrayed with a sad countenance. Shibu explains that it happens because when they start modeling, they are all conscious and gives the best happy expression possible. But by the time the artist finishes the initial outline, the model develops a passive resistance of the gaze of the artist. It is a meditation time for the model. He/she goes into a sort of stillness and the posture loses its artificiality. The real self of the model comes out. What the artist sees it in the face of the model is his or her mental journey. However, by the time the work is finished what the model looks for is what he/she remembers about the posture that she/he has given at the outset. What she remembers is the smile on her face at that time. She has forgotten the fact that she has gone into a different trip after that. What she sees on the canvas is the self reflected on the face. An artist like Shibu does not feel it important to make the model ‘beautiful’. After sometime, the painter too falls into a sort of trance. Even the initial controller and the controlled relationships also wears off as the time proceeds and he too gets into a sort of state of mind where what he sees is only forms, light, volumes. Even the emotions that we see the resultant portrait is just an aggregate of all these aspects that the skilled painter captures in his brush strokes.
Before we retire for the day Shibu has two ideas in his mind. One, he wants to paint the bed in the room. Two, he wants to paint the tablets strip from which the tablets have been already extracted. For both of us tablets have become constant companions; though we use only a minimum of them. He has seen his mother taking a few tablets and the discarded strips of foils have been an attraction for him. He asks me whether I have got such strips with me. I find one in my bag and gives to him. He looks at it under various lights and goes to bed thinking that he would paint the medicine foil. In the next morning we go for our usual morning walk around the golf course and as we almost reach the main stretch of the course that runs along the main road, at a distance I find someone who looked familiar walking opposite to us. I am surprised to see the person as he comes closer. He too must be having the same doubts and as he recognizes me he calls out my name with all warmth and rushes to hold my hands. He is Dilip Tripathy, the program officer of the National Lalit Kala Akademy. He has been a friend over two decades. I introduce Shibu to him. Surprisingly he remembers Shibu quite clearly and he recounts one particular incident happened in the year (2003) when Shibu had received the Triennale Award for painting. Tripathy is in a good mood. I ask him about the translation works that he has been doing of late which has given him even the national award from the Sahitya Akademi for translation. Tripathy translated Oriya literature into Hindi. Besides, he is a painter. Tripathy is there in Bangalore for setting up the National Exhibition which is to be held at the NGMA, Bangalore. With the Administrator of the National LKA, Chiru Krishna Shetty is from Bangalore now a few national activities are decentralized which is a good move. Tripathy has been staying in Bangalore for the last two weeks and he seems to be craving for some company. As we say good bye to him and continue our walk, he decides to come with us. He takes us to the NGMA premises, I show Shibu my favorite tree there and as it is just seven o clock in the morning, it is too early to see anything inside the buildings. Tripathy buys us tea and we say good bye to him in front of the old Hotel Chalukya where he stays and I too have fond memories of staying in this hotel a couple of years back.
Back in the hotel we have our breakfast at the dining. Anusha Koirala is in her uniform to receive the diners. She exchanges pleasantries and we return it. We have an early breakfast and go back to the room where Shibu is going to start the work. In the room, he wears a light yellow-green kurta, wears a bluish black cap and a red apron. The easel has been already set in front of the mirror. He announces that he has dropped the idea of painting the bed and the tablet strip. Now he is all set to make a self portrait. Self portrait has been a favorite artistic expression ever since the human beings have started painting. In the cave walls they painted not only the animals but also painted themselves in the hunting scenes. Even in emblematic and cryptogrammic form they have been incorporating their selves in the pictorial expressions. When art became purely a religious expression, in most of the votive paintings, artists too started putting their selves or surrogated selves as a part of the group of worshipers among the divine scenes. During Renaissance of any part of the world, artists started placing themselves as esoteric practitioners and it became a pre-requisite for them to paint their selves as shamans, priests, scientists or god themselves. With the private patronage coming to support individual artistic practices, self portraiture got more an independent status and there are no enough evidences to see that these self portraits were commissioned by the patrons. Hence we have to understand that in the newly developed scenario of independent art practice, artist himself might have developed this idea of looking at the self that watches all the other selves around him and portraying them in various guises. The self portraiture must be an evidential parameter against which the artist makes all the assessments about the portraits that he makes on others. It is not only self indulgent but also a spiritual seeking. It is a sort of documentation and registration in the physical level but at the same time a marker of the spiritual progress that the artist makes. Self portraiture is not simply the love for an egoistic self. But it is an attempt to see the eye that sees all. It is an inwardly look and reversed gaze. Self portraiture is the desexualization of the artist himself/ herself. An artist does not feel the need to sexualize his appearance in any of his portraits. From Da Vinci to Rembrandt, from Van Gogh to Picasso, from Gaugin to Krichner we do not see any effort from the artists to make themselves sexually appealing to anybody, not even unto themselves. These self portraitures are incisive, intrusive, clinical and dispassionate. Though the artist could take a lot of fancy when he paints his self portrait, there is always a philosophical distance. It is not just about capturing the likeness. It is all about capturing that mood of meditation. It is about registering a philosophical state of being. When you are making your self portrait, you are the most immobile person in the world. You are two while being one; one is the model and the other is the painter. The model is not the painter and the painter is not the model. But they are one and the same when the portrait is manifested in the canvas. This is a journey from dvaita to advaita, duality to unity. Shibu says that for portraiture the best model is the self because only the self has the patience to be the same throughout the painting session.
The room is lit with a strong spot light which has been there as if willed by the providence. A portrait always looks good in the spot light but the actuality of the portrait making is felt when it is taken away from the spot light and seen from a normally or partially lit corner. That is the natural light against which we see the portrait. The light from the outside is so strong therefore the window is closed with a double layered curtain to keep the room cool. For sometime Shibu keeps the curtains opened but soon closes it as he feels that the spot light is enough. On the white canvas he makes a rough shadow like figure with one single stroke with some sort of ochre color. Then he takes it off from the easel keeps it in a dark corner and looks at it intently. He seems to have seen the whole portrait in it. Now only thing is left to do is to get the portrait out of the canvas with a swishy smudge that he has just made. Then he takes it again to easel and fills up the background with a muddy color. I see a shadowy figure standing in the middle of the canvas. It is an island in a muddy sea. A self portrait is an island, I realize. He keeps working on it. And in one and half hour I could see him standing there looking intently back at him. But there are so many things that need to be added and discarded so that the final portrait would come out. What is there to add and what is there to discard, I look at it and ask myself. I could make out certain areas that need more work but eventually I would see them getting corrected automatically when he adds a patch here or there away from the place I have been looking at. What stand prominently for the time being is the red apron and the semi-yello-green kurta and the cap on his head. He takes it off from the easel and keeps looking at it.
One day has passed. The painting needs a second session and it waits patiently at the easel. Shibu wears the same clothe once again and takes up his magic wand in his left hand that helps him as a support to rest the right palm while he does the detailing. Now it is the time to do the eyes and correct the lips and jaw. Shibu seems to be a master of faces. With a few touches here and there the jaw is corrected and it aligns with the jaw line along the cheeks and to the chin. The eyes are slightly tilted now and he gives a magical touch there and they become in the same line and the counter gaze is intensified. In the meanwhile the artist couple (Sohni and Abhishek Dasgupta) who had taken us to Koshy’s come. Looking at Shibu’s work the girl wants to do a painting. She picks up one of the sketchbooks and does a watercolor. The young man being a photography artist himself picks up the camera and keeps making portraits of Shibu making a self portrait. The room becomes a maze of mirrors with an artist looking at the mirror and making a self portrait, with a self portrait coming out in the canvas, and the reflection of the artist and the portrait in the mirror, a man taking a photograph of the artist making a self portrait, his reflection in the mirror along with all other reflections and so on. By evening the other camp artists come there; T.V.Santhosh, Reji KP, Sarad Kulagati, Mahesh Baliga, Sujith SN, Murali Cheeroth (who happened to come to Bangalore for another work) and so on. They are all happy to see the work. Shibu takes out the painting and signs verso, puts the date and someone comes and picks up the work and go away. The hotel room becomes a hotel room once again. It has been a studio till then. The paint smell is still lingering. So is the spirit of the self portrait.