Saturday, February 28, 2009

Bastar Sketches

Bastar. This name has been there in the tongues of many artists for long time. It is a dream destination for the artists. Bastar, the southern district in Chattisgarh, is rich in natural resources. The soil is rich with ores. Forests line either side of the main road that leads to Bastar. It is a tribal belt and several artisans’ communities live here. Agriculture and crafts are the main occupation of the people. Lack of education and general backwardness had made the people here quite vulnerable. Hence decades back the ultra leftists, the Naxalites came to protect the interests of the tribal people here. They groomed the locals into militant left wing ideology. The Naxalites promised protection for the Bastar people from those who exploited them.

When Chattisgarh was carved out from the state of Madhya Pradesh, the new government promised several perks to the tribals and artisan communities. The Non-Governmental organizations work here diligently for the progress of the people. With effective governance and social engineering by planners, eradication of poverty and unemployment became an achievable goal. Slowly people who once protected the Naxalites started showing aversion to their militant ways. Now Naxalites do not get strong support from the natives. They seem to have become professional social crusaders. They fight the system by exploding police jeeps and killing government officials.

“Be extra cautious while venturing out,” friends who know about Bastar and its socio-political climate warn us ever since we started our journey to Bastar. We reach here by night after a long drive and settle in ‘Sathi-Samaj Sevi Sanstha’, an NGO that has been working from Kumbharpara, Kondagaon since 1988. Somu has worked with this NGO at regular intervals by conducting sculpture workshops in Bastar since 2001.

A Cold Morning in Bastar

Bastar reminds me of Santiniketan. Chirping of birds and the smell of burning wood and thickets fill the atmosphere. The morning is pleasantly cold. I come out of the house where we stay, covering myself with a chaddar (blanket). I don’t think I look any different from the villagers who are similarly covered. The houses here are low roofed and tiled. The walls are painted in rich green and blue colours. The courtyards look really clean. Getting water from the hand pumps seems to be the main job of the women and children as they are seen walking around with steel and clay pots on their heads. Feroze and Somu join me and we walk around the Sathi campus and do some photography. I pretend that I am a tribal from here. After seeing the pictures taken by Feroze, I feel clothes make a lot of difference to people.

A Visit to Sathi School

Sathi-Samaj Sevi Sanstha runs a school here for the children of artisans and tribal people. Bhupesh Tiwari, the man behind Sathi tells us that the people were not interested in education. Hence, Sathi started a school five years ago, starting from the nursery school. Now it has four standards. Each year one more class is added to the school. After eight years it will be a full fledged higher secondary school.

The village folk never liked their children studying. Those children who studied till eighth or tenth class from the government schools in the district did not want to continue their traditional crafts or artisan practices. Hence they used to stray. Unemployment looked like a self created vice then. Now, Sathi that works from eight different villages convinced the people that their children would be able to earn a minimum five thousand rupees a month if they finished their school, developed communication skills, general knowledge, business strategies and confidence. Bhupesh Tiwari envisions a future for these children where they would run their own business in arts and crafts and earn quite well.

In the school we see around hundred children; all in uniform. The local children walk to school, while the children from neighbouring villages come by a van provided by Sathi. Nursery, LKG, UKG, and four standards are now in full swing. There are eight teachers in the school. Rashmi Varma, a young lady heads the school. Children are taught English, Hindi, Mathematics, Environmental Science, General Knowledge and arts and crafts. Village elders are invited to impart traditional knowledge, history, myths and skills on Saturdays.

Children welcome us with ‘Namaste Bhaiyya’ (Salutes Brother). Fourth standard students greet us with ‘Good Afternoon’. They sing two prayer songs for us. They are shy, but they seem to have developed the confidence to talk to the visitors. You feel a lot good about them.

Suresh Wagmare-The Dogra Expert

We meet Suresh Wagmare. He is a Maharashtrian living here. He runs a Dogra casting unit. He is an artist and designer. There are several artisans working under him. He makes very small sculptures to life size human figures using Dogra casting technique.

The sculpture is modelled in clay and the ornamental details (the lines runs around the body of the figure typical to Dogra style) are added by lining the contours with thin threads prepared in paraffin wax. Previously bee wax was used but as the availability of bee wax became an issue, it was replaced with paraffin wax. Once the model is ready, it is covered with another layer of red clay mixed with strengthening materials so that between the model and the upper layer a hollow space is formed. Through a hole, the molten bronze is poured inside the mould. When the cast is removed the sculpture is read. In this lost wax technique, the basic model and the mould cannot be used again. So each piece remains a unique piece. Suresh experiments with different materials. His works are very much in demand all over India. He travels a lot and conducts workshops and exhibitions in metro cities.

This traditional sculpture making technique comes from the Gond and Maadi tribes. They used to make household utensils with this technique. While they were moving from one place to another, they started making deities and other fancy items using the same technique. Slowly it became a craze amongst the city people as it was promoted by sculptors like Jaydev Baghel and Pandiram.

The word ‘dogra’ comes from the tribal language and it means ‘old man’. “It could be old technique or old man’s technique as old people used to make these sculptures,” Suresh explains. The myth says that the tribal people learnt this technique from honey bees. Once the bees abandon a honeycomb, termites build mud walls around it. Those people who were looking for bee wax found that the wax was formed in the shape of honeycomb as there was an external cover of the termite wall. Myth says the Dogra casting technique came from this discovery.

Shilpigram- A Project in Ruins

Shilpi Guru Jaydev Baghel and well known artist Navjot Altaf started Shilpigram in Bastar a few years back. Their idea was to invite the sculptors and traditional silpis from all over India and conduct workshops and camps here. A few years back Navjot did a sculpture in this campus, which invited a huge controversy.

Navjot’s sculpture is an interesting work of art, which expresses the raw energy of the Bastar people. In this sculptural ensemble in concrete you see a huge man sitting and ogling at a very voluptuous nude woman standing in front of him. On the right side you see a pig couple interlocked in a sexual act. A small boy is about to throw a stone at this blissful swine couple, while his father prevents him from doing it. Two totem poles stand witness to this life drama.

The controversy came when some of the local people objected to the nudity of the ‘woman’ and the ‘interlocked’ position of the pigs. So what we see now is something hilarious. Someone had painted a sari and blouse, draped in typical tribal style, on the woman. From a distance you see a sari clad woman. Once you go near, you can’t do anything but laughing. Besides, the ‘interlock’ of the pigs also is smashed by somebody. So we see two pigs standing back to back, connected with a few rusting iron rods.

I think of the famous sculptor Kanai Kunhiraman’s sculpture ‘Yakshi’ at Malambuzha Dam site in Kerala. It was done during 1970s and it had invited a lot of controversy. But controversy paved way for curiosity and this sculpture, a thirty feet huge voluptuous nude woman sitting with her legs spread and hands thrown back to her head, became one of the most appreciated public sculptures in Kerala. Now if someone picks up a controversy, how would she be clad, I ask myself. “In a churidar’. I imagine Yakshi with a painted churidar suit over her. I smile. We indulge in photography in a way only the males could do.

Hiralal, the Blacksmith

When we reach the blacksmiths’ basti in Jodhar Padar it is already four in the evening. The blacksmiths are there at their workshop, some of them working and some of them just sitting around, gossiping. Somu is a familiar face here. The blacksmiths get up and salute Somu. They shake hand with me and Feroze also. Then Hiralal, a young man of 32 makes his appearance from somewhere. He is clad in jeans and shirt. Somu asks him to give us a demonstration in the making of ‘iron deers’. Hiralal obliges and he changes into a loin cloth.

These blacksmiths are highly skilled artisans and they can make any form from small scrape metals and iron by beating it into shape. These days they make the form of deer. Hiralal picks up a piece of iron and puts it into the furnace. It is now red hot. He picks it up with a tool and starts hammering it rhythmically. In twenty minutes, a small deer comes animated before us. It is sheer magic.

One man makes black tea for us and serves the tea in a cup made up of fresh green leaves. We drink it from the leaf cup with some difficulty. I had used leaf spoons for drinking porridge in my childhood. Now it gives me a strange feeling. We have changed a lot. Hiralal shows us the finished product. It is beautiful. It costs Rs.40. We cannot dispute as we have seen the amount of work and skill involved in the making of it.

These artisans can make a lot of money and they do make it. But the moment they get money, they buy motorbikes and expensive things. Most of the times, they are high on Mahuva, the local liquor. They even marry several times and that is not a problem amongst their community. Hiralal has two wives and they live in the same house. He travels all over India, attend camps and give demonstrations even in the elite schools like the NID. He shows us the certificates given to him by the Kerala Lalit Kala Akademy.

The Treasure Pit and Dev Ser

Behind Hiralal’s workshop, there is a huge pit. Hiralal’s uncle takes us there and tells the story behind this pit. A few years back someone convinced the villagers about a huge treasure hidden there in the land behind Hiralal’s workshop. The villagers came together to dig a pit. They dug for a few months and no treasure came up. Frustrated they left digging. It is almost fifty feet wide and twenty feet deep. “We still mock each other showing this pit,” Hiralal’s uncle tells us with a sheepish smile.

A few meters away from the pit, there is a small forest of saal trees and it is called ‘dev ser’. This is a place where the blacksmiths come to worship their gods. Hiralal’s uncle shows us three trees that they worship particularly. There is a small mud house in one end and a divine couple is worshipped there. “Whenever we want mental peace we come and sit here under the trees,” says Hiralal’s uncle.

Rameshwar Mesari and Gotul

Rameshwar Mesari meets us when he pillion rides on a motor bike to his Gotul. The three men on the bike are pretty much drunk. Mesari knows Somu. He jumps down from the bike and greets Somu. The second pillion rider, an impoverished old man in an inebriated state also jumps down to greet us. He is so thin and wears only a shirt. The tip of his loin clothe hangs between his legs. Mesari lifts him and puts him back on the bike and joins us in the car.

Mesari does not know whether to smile or cry. Inside the car he keeps his mouth closed with palms. He is the ‘adhyaksh’ (president) of a gotul. Gotuls are the community centres, a unique feature in Bastar, where the men and women gather at night for drinking, eating, singing and dancing. Gotul has a thatched house and there is a raised platform with conical roof in the middle of the courtyard. There are several drums hung from the pillars. Mesari performs stilt walking for us. I play one of the drums. Then Mesari goes inside, ties a set of bells and gunghroos around his waist. He comes out and starts dancing. Feroze clicks photographs. We give Mesari some money and he asks for more.

To visit a gotul, you need local escort. We decide to go to see the action in a gotul by night. Hiralal promises to accompany us. But when we go to pick him up, he is already drunk and ‘out of order’, ‘unreachable’, ‘out of coverage area’, ‘busy or not responding now’ and ‘no network’ state.

The Stalker- A Movie shoot

When we left Baroda on 19th February we had planned a short movie in Bastar. The movie is all about stalking. One person feels that he is stalked by somebody. And he does see a man stalking him. But the other person also thinks that he is being stalked by someone else. This takes them into a physical and psychological state.

We find the location near the second gotul and Somu starts recording my walking and nervous looking back. I do the same with him. We choose several angels to do the shoot. And when both of us are in the frame, Feroze handles the camera. He takes a lot of stills also. Hope this film would come out well.

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