Monday, March 30, 2009

Dispatches on Survival: With Respect to John Berger

That’s why someone builds up things
Brick by brick
They know six half truths would make a lie
And one truth may be persecuted
Between words and rumors.
A deed done in conviction
Though deplored and disputed by many
Would eventually stay to tell the truth
That’s why they say, ‘we grow old in our deaths
And martyrs grow young in their sacrifice.’
Fear and shame make one to look
Only at the world as big as his toe
Even if you call it selfishness
Where would he eventually look
Otherwise for his ultimate salvation?
The rubbles of one’s own life
Is the last weapon against the sophisticated weapons
Of the rumor mongers
When he pelts it at the invincible forces
He pelts his own life with force and rage.
That’s why I let each pedestrian pass by me
Overtake me and make me understand
My unworthiness in my security
Like a worm cocooned in its sticky philosophy.
That’s why I make my life a brick
With several others, in silence and shame,
To build the fortresses of endurance
Which have pictures of every martyr
Pasted on the walls with tears and blood.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Happy Birthday

Then suddenly
The silence breaks,
Like a crystal glass
Kept for long, away
In the chest of memories.
While picking up the pieces
I realize it’s my birthday.
I am going to keep
The broken glass
In the broken shell
Of my soul
Forever for whatever.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


‘All animals are equal. But some are more equal than others’- Geroge Orwell.

There cannot be any better definition for/of democracy than the one George Orwell had proposed in his famous political fable ‘Animal Farm’ (1945). In a democratic system, when the politicians fail to deliver, people look up to the media and the media people.

Ordinary people in the streets believe that the media personals can do wonders. Whatever is seen in print or on television screens, for the people, carry some kind of truth value. The names of the media work; it can turn a reluctant one into an obliging one and vice versa.

The magic word ‘PRESS’ opens several doors, which otherwise remain shut before the ordinary people like you and me.

Perhaps, that’s why the common Indian man buys a PRESS sticker from a footpath stall and sticks it on his Bajaj Scooter and small little Maruti 800.

You may not be surprised to see a milkman’s rusty Rajdoot flaunting a PRESS sticker though it does not have a proper registration number. You don’t feel offended to see so many vehicles plying on Delhi roads carrying this five letter wonder sticker on their windscreens.

Somewhere you feel a kind of reeling in your head as you look inside these vehicles to see people who, even after a skillful make-up man’s hard work, would never look like press people. That’s the magical realism of Delhi. It reels you and floors you.

The most hilarious scene is citing a single vehicle with several stickers: Doctor, Lawyer, MP (Member of Parliament), Lions Club, PRESS and what not. The rickety vehicle owner would like to tell the world how powerful he is. He is all in one.

I have digressed enough. The key question: What do you do when the respected media person flouts the law of the land and tells you at your face that he or she is a more equal animal than you?

“Get them before the law.” That is the answer. “How?”

There are several ways. I heard one of the ways recounted by an artist friend of mine today.

This morning (18th March 2009), my friend was driving towards his studio. He was waiting at a traffic junction for the light to turn green. Suddenly a car with a sticker PRESS and the logo of one of the most famous Television channels in India zoomed past him and jumped the red light. An alert traffic constable was on the other side of the traffic light and he waved the car down and asked him to pull over to the side. The driver reluctantly obliged.

Seeing this, my friend too parked his car on the side and waited to see what was going on between the cop and the occupants of the car.

A girl, obviously a reporter or a technician with the television channel was sitting inside the car and combing her hair. She, according to my friend, was giving to the cop the kind of damn, which she would give to one of those lice that she was searching for in her mop.

“Can’t you see that we are from the media?” the driver told the cop.

“Whoever you are please show the papers,” the cop politely said.

“You will face the consequences,” shouted the lady.

It was when my friend decided to intervene. He walked up to the cop and told him, “If you don’t charge them, they will make a ‘human interest story’ out of it. And if you do then also they will make a ‘story’. So better go for the latter.”

She gave my friend a ‘who the hell are you’ kind of look. But she said, “Mind your own business.”

“I am minding my business,” said my friend. “If you are from XYZ TV, I am from UVW Newspaper,” he said confidently. Then he turned to the cop and told him, “Sir, please charge them, I am the witness.”

Supported by another PRESS (the magic word) and public, the cop fined the lady with Rs.1500/-. Grumbling and mumbling curses, she snatched the receipt and drove away, crestfallen.

Many media people think that they can flout law. They get scared when the public intervenes. They look at the public with that ‘who the hell are you’ look.

I have seen one of the leading news casters in Indian television, jumping queues at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi. He was with his girl friend and his hands were around her waist, with fingers searching for private pleasures in public.

I had this rage in me to confront him. But the security personals were just letting him go. He knows his worth. PRESS. And he knows his face is beamed on the plasma screens there in the airport lounges 24x7.

And when the security is breached at the airport, it is he who screams from his studio chair, “Priyanka, please update our viewers with the latest position at the International airport.”

Then this cute lady comes on screen (with the airport buzz as a backdrop) telling us how lousy our security system is. Some animals are more equal than others.

But these animals are at times tamed, when the public in the garb of artists or layman intervene.

One day, again at the IGIA, New Delhi, I saw how the intervention could make these more equal animals equal with others.

One of the leading actors in Bollywood, who also used to be a Member of Parliament, was just coming behind me. I passed the second security gate by showing my ticket print out while the actor sneaked in and walked towards the check in counter.

The security officer called him back. The actor was offended. He refused to come back. The officer insisted.

“Do you know who I am?” asked the actor.

“I know who you are…but sir, you are no different than any other passenger for me. So please show me your ticket,” said the officer without any change in his facial expression.

May be the actor had not got such a treatment before in his life. Other police officers came around him. They all knew him as he was a star (not everybody recognize a member of parliament). They tried to calm him down.

Finally, kneeling on the floor, the actor opened his suitcase and started looking for his ticket. After much effort he took the ticket out of a bundle of clothes. With a ginger face he handed over the ticket to the officer.

“Sir, I know you. I am sorry if you are hurt. But I cannot let you go without showing the ticket. I am doing my duty,” said the officer.

The actor walked off in a huff. He might have felt like any other animal like you and me.

People can make a lot of difference in our society. Only thing that they should intervene whenever and wherever it is needed.

Otherwise the more equal animals would tell us as Philip Roth said in his famous novel ‘I Married a Communist’- “You should be happy that I only raped you. If someone else was in my place, it would have been terrible.”

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Thank You

We formally finished the ‘Ways of Seeing Road Trip’ on 4th March 2009 with a visit to the B.A.Mehta Kala Mahavidyalaya, Amalsad. Now it is the time to express my gratitude to all those people who stood with us, supported us and followed us virtually during the tour.

First of all I, on behalf of the Art Routes team, would like to thank all those seven sponsors who believed in the project and helped us with money and blessings. One of my friends from the television media asked me about the budget of the tour and she was curious to know how I managed to raise the sufficient funds during the ‘recession’ time. Sincerely speaking, economic recession did not deter any one of the sponsors from contributing the money which I had asked for. Thank you K.S.Radhakrishnan, Asit Shah, Mukesh Panika, Anubhav Nath, Dilip Narayaynan, Manjunath Kamath and Chintan Upadhyay. You trusted me and believed in the project- thank you.

Our thanks are due to all those friends and well wishers who waited for each upload in the site. Many of them kept themselves awake till midnight, watched the photographs, read the postings and called us up even at 1 am to tell us how they felt one with us during the tour. Thank you. Without your comments we couldn’t have kept our adrenaline rush so high.

I should thank our immediate family members who gave us support through phone calls, emails and text messages from early mornings to late night. I should mention the names of Mrinal Kulkarni, my wife, Ramla, Feroze Babu’s wife (who was forcibly separated from Feroze for twenty days in their 23 year old successful married life), and Somu’s mother. Thank you Maitrey, my son, for reminding me, every other day, to get ‘Power Rangers Toys’ for you. If at all I had felt low, your lisping rejuvenated me.

Some of my friends had expressed their reservation regarding the timely uploading of blog and the site, citing the poor internet connectivity in the remote areas where we traveled. But Reliance Net Connect gave us fabulous connectivity and we were able to upload the blog and site without any problem. (The only problem we faced was with electricity supply in several parts of Madhya Pradesh). Thank you Reliance Net Connect. During our trip we used Vodafone, Cell One, Airtel and Idea mobile service.

Feroze took wonderful pictures using Nikon D-300 camera with 16 mm lens and 85 mm Zoom lens. He used SB 800 flash. The whole work was done in DELL XPS M 1330 lap top and HP Pavilion lap top. These companies may not be knowing that we used their services. However, I take this opportunity to thank them for the technical support. Last but not the least, I should thank Rifas Feroze, the 19 year old technical wizard. Whenever Feroze found a technical problem, it was solved over phone by his son Rifas, who is currently pursuing his graduation in engineering at Moonnar Engineering College. Thank you, young friend.

Thank you all.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

B.A Mehta College- Yes We Can

B.A.Mehta Kala Mahavidyalay, Amalsad, in South Gujarat is our last point in the ‘Ways of Seeing Road Trip’. Feroze had left for Kochi on 4th March from Mumbai by the evening flight for attending certain pre-scheduled family matters.

On the way to the college, Pramesh, a young artist from Valsad and an alumnus of B.A.Mehta College joins us. We reach the college by nine thirty in the morning and the students and staff receive us. Though their annual display is dismantled, they have arranged a special display for us.

This college is important as far as the ‘Ways of Seeing Road Trip’ is concerned. It was one of my visits to this college in January 2008 triggered the idea of the present trip. On my first visit, I had found the students of this college very meek and less articulate. They had a lot of problems.

Now the scene looks totally different. The students are confident and their works on display show that they have improved quite a lot. During the last one year, the senior students got several opportunities to travel to the major cities, attend camps and workshops, and communicate with artists.

I do not make any claim on the improvement of the students. The whole credit goes to two people namely Akshay Naik, who heads the Applied Art department and Somu, who regularly goes back to this institute, selects students for doing workshops and site specific works. Whenever he visits galleries and artists’ studios, he collects catalogues and other materials and contributes to the college library.

If someone thinks that I am over-rating and back patting my friend, I would say that they are mistaken. During this trip, we visited around fourteen regional art colleges and from all these institutions we heard the same complaint: no former students come back to the college at least once in a year to inspire the present students. Here, Somu does it and he does it without waiting for institutional support or without aiming at some personal gain.

I would say it is a commendable act.

B.A.Mehta College is not exceptional when it comes to bureaucracy, internal politics and red tapsim. But the students here have learnt to wade through these difficulties. They have seen a different world of art.

When we visited this college last year, the internet facilities were really poor. Now, the college has got high speed internet connectivity and most of the students make use of it. Though the library facilities have not improved considerably, ready reference books have been included in the collection.

I watch a lot of animation movies with my four year old son, Maitreya. He loves ‘Bob the Builder’ movies. The title song of each episode starts like this: ‘Bob the builder/Can we do it?/ Bob the builder/ Yes, we can.’ Sitting amongst the B.A.Mehta College students this jingle keeps resonating in my mind. ‘Yes we can.”

The works of Bhavesh Patel, Pragnesh, Ashvind, Chentan Mehta and Vijay Mcwana, painting students look really strong in terms of skill and content. Pragnesh and Bhavesh has already shown in Mumbai and his works are already in a few collections.

We do a presentation of ‘Vibrant Gujarat Mural Project’ and the ‘Ways of Seeing Road Trip’ for them. The mural project is a point of celebration for them because five artists from this college had participated in the making of the mural in record time. The students receive the mural images with applause.

Many of the students already know about the road trip through site. The teachers have been following us for the last fifteen days through the site.

Interestingly, a few students express their wish to set out on similar journeys to understand the kind of art and cultural practice in India.

Here nobody talks about recession. They know the economics of art market. But they are optimistic and energetic. May be that is the reason why I would like to come back to this college at least once in a year.

The board examination is on and it is time for us to leave.

We are winding up our tour. Now we drive towards Baroda from where we part our ways temporarily.

The car speeds through the high way. From the dashboard of the car, a rose flower presented by the students and teachers of the B.A.Mehta College, smiles at me.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Parsee Village in Udwada

Cool breeze from the Arabian Sea wafts through the paved alleys of Udwada Gam. Each house on the either side of the alleys is a block of silence. It is three o clock in the afternoon. Slanting sun rays pass through the dust raised by the children going back home from school, light up the place in a hazy mode.

Most of the houses are double storied and have a very Spartan design. The verandas are large and minimally designed Teak wood furniture adorns the spaces. Each house has a stately swing in its veranda. Time and silence sit on these swings and stare at each other.

Udwada Gam, near Vapi in South Gujarat, looks like an abandoned village. While walking through the winding alleys you can imagine nothing but the paintings of George de Chirico. Anytime from any turn, someone can appear before you. A long shadow of a child running with an iron ring can come into your ken unexpectedly. In Udwada you are caught into the web of history.

Udwada is the first Parsee settlement in India. And here you see the first ever Parsee temple with ‘Fire’ as the idol. The temple seems to have got a facelift recently. The façade looks washed and cleaned. A middle aged Parsee man sits at his veranda, just opposite to the entrance of the temple and a signboard written in Gujarati shows that he sells the best ‘Malabari Sandalwood Battis’. There are two security men there in the street. They seem to be bored to death.

None speaks here. No voice is heard. It seems that there is a pre-written script and that script is blank wherever dialogue is mentioned. A silent movie of pious old people.

Somu trains his camera at the temple and just then a very young couple in embroidered white clothes appear before us (I should add, like angels) and tell us in a polite tone, “No Photographs please.” The couple hold their hands and vanish into the temple.

‘Only Parsees are allowed,’ a signboard says. Unlike in the other pilgrim places, no bustling business is seen here. If at all they sell, they sell only sandalwood agarbattis. They consign this wood to the fire in the temple. The temple is devoted to Ahura Mazda, the Zorashtrian spiritual head and the fire in this temple is believed to be around two thousand years old.

“One day, a Police officer brought his family to visit the temple. The security men told them that they were not allowed. But they were not convinced. Then I came out of my office and talked to the gentleman,” remembers Mahirwan Dastur, an eighty two year old priest whom we chance upon.

He sits at his old chair in the veranda of his house and we stand outside of the gate which is around six feet away from his chair. He does not invite us, nor do we ask for entry.

“I told the policeman why Indira Gandhi was not allowed to enter the Tirupati Temple. She was married to a Parsee and that was the only reason. Each religion has its own rules and regulations. We need to stick to it. The police officer was convinced and he left the place without any grudge,” Mahirwan Dastur continues.
Parsees came to India in 1742 AD. They were facing persecution in their homeland, Iran. Thousands of children, women and male folks were killed. As a warrior clan, they did not want to live in shame. Hence they consulted their astrologer and the astrologer asked them to move southwards. Thus they reached Diu. Then they moved towards Sanjan, Gujarat and temporarily settled there.

“We were quite a lot of people, the story goes like this,” Mahirwan Dastur tells us. “We requested the king to give us land and food. But the king sent us a jug full of milk. Our forefathers were surprised to see this act of the king. How could the king send a jug full of milk for hundreds of people? But soon they understood the meaning of it. The king was suggesting that the country is full and there was not an inch to spare. But our ancestors were intelligent and well-meaning people. They added sugar in the milk and sent it back to the king. The king got the meaning: the guests are ready to become one with the host country, the way sugar dissolves into milk. The King allowed us to live here,” he recounts the story for us.

Then the Parsees moved to Vasda and to Navsari. Meanwhile internal strife, in terms of religious practice was brewing up amongst them. But they finally decided to come to Udwada as the king of Udwada was happy to have them around. The first Parsee settlement in India started in Udwada after a few years of exodus.

Udwada got its name from Unt Wada. Oont or unt means Camel. This village was the place where the king used to keep his camels.

The temple was built almost two hundred and seventy years back.

The Parsee life was changing fast throughout the centuries. Now in Udwada, you find only old people. And rarely young couple, like the one who warned us about photography. Many houses are in an abandoned state.

A single zero watt bulb is on in the veranda throughout the year in all these abandoned houses. On the one hand it could be seen as symbolic fire worship even at the absence of the household people. On the other, it is a very practical move that the electricity board will not cut the supply as the houses are abandoned. Technically speaking when the electronic meters are on, the house is in use. The properties are still owned by people who have left Udwada years before. They still pay the electricity bill to maintain the ownership.

I have seen the same in the Bohra community’s abandoned houses in Partapur, Rajasthan. The Bohras have migrated to the Middle Eastern countries. But they keep their properties here. Parsees also do the same. But they have a different history.

“We were taught in Gujarati medium,” says Mahirwan Dastur. “It was not enough to get jobs or live in a competitive world. People wanted to progress in life. So they started migrating to the cities like Bombay, where they found their success in life and business. This tendency of migration started almost two hundred years back.”

Mahirwan Dastur also had gone away. He served in Zanzibar, Africa, for fourteen years. But he came back and settled his ‘hometown’ Udwada. “I am born here, brought up here, educated here and I want to see my end here. I am an Indian,” he says.

But many of the Parsees do not think so. They are urban oriented and they have proved their worth in these places as successful businessmen, advocates, artists and so on. I remember Tata, Soli Sorabjee and Jehangir Sabawala.

Now the population of Parsees all over the world is around one lakh. Out of that, seventy thousand Parsees live in India itself. The Parsee population is on a downward slide.

Reasons are many but it is a well known fact that they don’t want their racial links to get mixed up. Parsees want to keep their blood pure. Hence, inter religious and inter caste marriages are not allowed. Most of the Parsee men get married at a late age. If at all a Parsee boy marries a non-Parsee girl, the girl will not be allowed to enter the temple. She will not be considered as a Parsee. If a boy is married into Parsee family, he also will remain as an outsider. Interestingly, the children will be brought up as Parsees.

With receding population and urban oriented migration, Udwada has only old people. They are looked after by the local communities and many of them live with the old people and look after them as they look after their own parents.

“Where is your family?” I ask Mahirwan Dastur.

He smiles.

“I am not married,” he says. “When I came back from Africa, I was jobless and homeless. I did not want to marry. Above all, the astrologer told me that I should not get married. My marriage would have been as disastrous as a thunder strike.”

Mahirwan Dastur smiles. I measure the distances he has covered with that smile. Now left alone, and left at the mercy of a community and the benevolent local people, Mahirwan looks like a man still in his exodus.

While going back, we see lonely men and women sitting at the verandas of huge abandoned looking old houses.

It is painful to see old people alone. They are all silent and still on an exodus. They want to go their father’s land- no, not to Iran, but to the land of soothing fire.

PS: I try to strike a Wesley Snipes posture at the pool side in Atul Club in Pardi. Somu registers my antics.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Nasik- Art and Religion

From Jalgaon to Nasik the distance is around 225 kilo meters. But we take a different route and travel southwards. The morning is beautiful and the state highway that winds through the plains is quite smooth. Unlike the national highways, most of the state highways that connect remote areas in India with the national highways are well maintained. At least in the central Indian region where we have been travelling for the last thirteen days, this is the case.

I drive the car for almost one hour, maintaining a speed of seventy kilometres per hour. Today we are completing ninety five per cent of our scheduled trip. We are in a light mood. On the way we touch Shirdi, the famous temple of Sai Baba and we make offerings there.

Many of you who read this piece may not be strong believers. You may not even believe in miracles. We have a peculiar situation now. Somu has been here in Shirdi before several times. He had a wish to take me there. Feroze does not believe in visiting shrines, irrespective of religions. I have never been to Shirdi. We decide to make an offering in the Sai Temple.

It is already noon and the atmosphere is quite hot. We need to reach Nasik Fine Arts College before evening. We have already contacted a lecturer, Amit Abhange, there. He is waiting for us. So we drive fast.

A few kilometres before Nasik, we are stopped by policeman. He comes near the car and asks for the papers. We do not own this car but the papers are correct and fool proof. We hand over the file to the policeman. He ask us to come out and we flatly refuse his command.

“If the papers are correct, please let us go as we have to attend a meeting in a while,” I tell the policeman without budging from the seat.

“Then come out and make an entry in the ledger,” he says.

“What entry?” We ask.

The constable is confused. He does not have an explanation. He wants to argue but he finds himself incapable of doing it. Hence he calls out for another senior officer to come over. The senior officer comes and his seniority is visible from the different cut of his uniform and cap.

“The papers are correct and the car belongs to a friend,” Somu tells the senior officer.

Actually, the officer is senior only in rank. He must be younger than us. He wears a pair of dark goggles. “If it is like that, where is your friend?” he asks.

We all laugh. We know what is going on. The policemen also laugh. I take out fifty rupees note from my wallet and give to him.

“No, no, hundred,” he demands with a friendly laugh.

“I don’t have change and I don’t have hundred rupees note either,” I tell him with the same hollow laughter.

“Two fifties will do,” he says.

I give him two fifty rupee notes and he is very happy. I think that he would salute us now. Feroze finds the whole exchange hilarious. He comes from a place where policemen who patrol the street are very strict and arrogant.

In Nasik, Amit Abhange receives us. We park the car near a ghat at the Godavari River. The city with its temples, mendicants, beggars, traditional bazaars, ghats, bell towers etc remind me of Banaras and Haridwar. The same ambience is palpable here.s

Nasik has four fine arts colleges; two exclusively for sculptures and two for paintings. We are at Nasik Kalaniketan Chitrakala Mahavidyalay. The car cannot go up to the building where the college is situated. So we walked down through the winding alleys.

There is a strange stench of time here. I try to define the smell. It is some kind of Ammonia smell (of urine), mixed with the aroma of sweets, fragrance of flowers and sandalwood agarbatis. I notice one more thing: these alleys have a lot of jewellers’ shops.

The college functions from a four floored narrow building. The rooms are crammed with paintings and photographs. There are some works that tell us that the students here experiment with modern and post modern art styles. Most of them are portraits and landscapes. That explains the ‘style’ of this particular school.

Interestingly, in this dingy building, there are two well maintained halls. In one of them there is a computer lab with around ten computers. They have internet facilities here. The other room is a permanent gallery, where the works of the senior artists, who had studied or visited the college ever since it was established. Also there are works, which are done by the faculty members. You feel like standing in an old section of a large museum.

The institute was started in 1940 by Vagu Kulkarni, one of the illustrious portraitists from Nasik region. Later it got recognition from the government and became a diploma college. Now it offers Government Diploma in Painting and Art Teaching Diploma.

The diploma course in painting is of five years; foundation, elementary, secondary and two years of specialization. The art teaching diploma is for two years. There are 175 students currently studying here.

As we have seen in the central India region, this college is also affiliated to Directorate of Art, Mumbai. Previously it used to follow the syllabus of Sir.J.J.School of Arts and the examinations were conducted in Mumbai. Now it has a modified syllabus though examinations are conducted by the Directorate of Art.

This college is the oldest institute in Nasik. In 1940 itself it had conducted a National Exhibition. The college regularly organises on the spot painting competitions, portrait competitions etc. The teachers also participate in national level competitions and exhibitions and this practice motivate the students.

Though the facilities are minimum, the students are in touch with the contemporary art scene. “Proximity with Mumbai makes all the difference. Students from here travel to Mumbai to see exhibitions and they make a lot of friends there,” says Abhange.

The students are compelled to do portraits and landscapes as the syllabus is devised in that fashion. But once their class works are over, they prefer to do site specific works, photography etc. “There are some students who experiments with land art,” Abhange says.

The institution has two buildings; the one we have already visited and the other one, which is on the shore of Godavari. It is a very old building and Abhange says that during the flood in 2008 the water came up to the first floor and the furniture of the college were washed away.

Abhange takes us to the building and we find small shrines at each and every corner of the way. Sadhus sit together in a mandap and chat animatedly. In the Baazar, people are busy bargaining and buying. From behind a temple we go to the old college building.

The pathway opens surprises for us. There are several small temples and houses within that congested space. From jharokas people look down to us. There is a strange calmness. If it is in Delhi or Mumbai we would find loving couple perched up in every nook and corner, kissing and petting. Here it is different. We find young women and men sitting silently and meditation. Some chant verses from religious books. Some women walk around the tulsi plant, which is placed on a raised platform smeared with saffron colours.

Together it looks like a perfect film set. We are intruders into their private world of meditation. The devotees do not even come to know about our presence. But the idols of gods and goddesses look at us curiously.

At the river ghaat, women wash their clothes and put for drying. The water looks really dirty. But it is a holy river. Once in every twelve years the Maha Kumbhmela happens here. Devotees, tourists and curious onlookers come here from all over the world. Then the whole place changes into something else. The next Maha Kumbh is going to happen in 2015. Abhange says that there is a temple on the other side of the river, which opens only for one year during the Maha Kumbh. Rest of the time it remains closed.

I see an old woman on the steps Godavari River. She looks so tired and she shakes her body as if she is in a trance. She behaves as if she has taken some drugs. She tries to look at us. But her eyes do not focus. She raises her hand for covering her breasts with her sari but she fails. We walk on.

On the pavement, another woman is selling small little things; sindoor, conch shells, flowers, rudrakshas, prayer beads, camphor, dhoop etc etc. Her sari has fallen from her chest exposing her huge cleavage. Feroze stands before her and trains his camera at something which is on the other side of the river. He is not aware of this woman.

But the woman is aware of his presence and his camera. She pulls her sari a bit more down and shows her booties to the world. She is so proud of herself and she confidently smiles at the camera.

Later I ask Feroze to show me the picture. But he has missed her pride. He was clicking some other scene on the other side of the river.

Across the river, there is an old building, which has a huge bronze bell hanging from a lintel. When the water level reaches to the bell during the flood, the bell would ring automatically due to the waves. It is a flood alarm from the old times.

We leave Nasik, the old Nasik where history, religion, art and daily chores of survival mingle together to make the ambience which is peculiar to this place.

Our car takes a turn and we are stopped by a police man. He comes to my side. I open the door. He grins.

Now we know what he wants. But we wait. I am on a phone call and he waits like an obedient servant. After a few minutes, I talk to him.

“You are going on a happy trip. Let me share the happiness,” he says with an innocent grin.

Now for the time being, our and his happiness means an exchange of fifty rupees.

We drive out of Nasik and imagine that anybody could explode India, if they are willing to pay fifty rupees to a Policeman on the road.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

War to Wardha

Once we leave Bastar, Naraianpur becomes a memory. Feroze tells me a story about the famous photographer, Neil Leifer who was assigned by Time Magazine to photograph the top athletes of the world against the backdrop of the landmark of their own country. In China, he made the athletes to stand near the Great Wall of China. In India, it was Taj Mahal and in London, the London Bridge. The photographer went to Cuba and he could not find any landmark there. So he managed a picture of the athletes with none other than the legendary (former) President of Cuba, Fidel Castro.

In Narainpur, we don’t have a landmark. The only available landmark is none other than Pandiram Mandavi, the Muriya wood carver. Everybody knows him and he knows everybody. As I said in my yesterday’s diary, he can go anywhere in a loin cloth and turban. His smile is infectious. He smiles like poet A.Ayyappan, one of the legendary contemporary poets in Kerala, who live a complete anarchic life. Feroze again suggests that we should have a conference of these anarchists and Ayyappan and Pandiram should preside the conference. I find the suggestion interesting.

And Feroze who is comfortable behind the camera posed with Pandiram and the accompanying artist, Palak Raval captures the moment in her camera. He is happy to have this landmark of Narainpur preserved in his digital memory. However, Feroze has something to regret. He is not able to take a photograph of the Naxalites. At least he would like to have one photograph of those army men in combat fatigue who stand in alert on either side of the road that leads to Narainpur. In one point we see a few soldiers with their machine guns. Somu stops the car and Feroze approaches them with his ‘ready to click’ camera.

It is a shoot out point. Either Feroze would shoot them or they would shoot Feroze. The latter is the worst case scenario. Both the parties are alert and the soldiers who have walked past our car stop their march and come to us. An officer asks us why we stopped the car. I tell him that we are journalists and would like to have some pictures with them. He flatly refuses to pose and tells us that we would find his superiors a few kilometres ahead and they would pose for us. Feroze is crestfallen.

For a photojournalist, losing an opportunity to have a wonderful picture clicked is one of the devastating experiences. Feroze is sad after this. But providence has something interesting in store for us, especially for Feroze.

We are on our way to Wardha, the famous Gandhi Ashram. I am at the wheel. The morning is pleasant and the state highway that leads us from Bastar to Gadchiroli is really smooth. As it is a Sunday the road is rather empty. Summer has just started and the light of the day is very special. Palash trees near the road have blossomed. There is a riot of red everywhere. The sky seen through the blossomed Palash trees look as if someone has written a poem with blood on it.

I remember the forest fires that I had seen couple of days back while going to Bastar. I ask a local about these forest fires. He tells me that the fire is man made and it is made with a purpose. Generally, the dried leaves and twigs under the Mahua trees are set on fire by the village folk so that they can collect the Mahua flowers fallen around the trees. The village folks want Mahua flowers to brew a local liquor, which is also called Mahua. If the dried leaves and twigs are there, they cannot collect the falling flowers easily. Indigenous techniques and traditional know hows, I tell myself.

Sparse traffic helps me to drive fast and smooth. Suddenly, just before we enter Gadchiroli, a few army men wave at the car. I pull the car over to the side and park it under a tree. These armed men come to us and ask me to open the door. They ask us to get out and do a thorough search of the car. Then their superior officer who sits under a tree wants me to show them our papers. We show the documents of the car and impart our personal details.

While me and Somu are dealing with the superior officer, Feroze makes friends with the personals. Finally he asks the officer for permission to take photographs with them. His dream has come true.

The check up is a routine one. We are entering the Naxalite infested Gadchiroli district. Though during the day time, the ultras do not come out of the forests, at night they can do anything here. The army officials want to know whether we are pro-Naxalite guys. Once they are convinced of our antecedents and present, they let us go. I jump into the driver’s seat and start the car.

Feroze is a happy man. He tells me that his unfulfilled dream during the trip has now materialised in a way. I drive on.

After ten hours of drive we reach Wardha. Wardha is in Maharashtra. The first thing I notice is a sign board, ‘A K Gandhi Tyres.’ It should have been MK Gandhi Tyres, we joke.

There is a reason why we are specially alert to a sign board that advertises tyres. By noon, we find one of rear tyres broken and its steel radial wires torn apart. We need an urgent change. We get the spare tyre fitted from a wayside tyre shop. But he does not have new tyres for our Tavera.

We are in Chandrapur district, which is famous for its coal mines. The climate is unnervingly hot. We find a tyre shop and go for a tyre replacement. We buy a new tyre and wait for the mechanics to change it. Now with a new tyre we are ready to drive fast.

In Wardha it is prayer time. The Gandhi Ashram here is called Bapu Kutir Sevagram and it is located in the outskirts of the city. Mahatma Gandhi was released from the Pune Jail in 1936 and he wanted to work amongst the poor villagers. So he asked his friends to set up an Ashram in Wardha.

Gandhiji entered the Ashram in 1936 and stayed here till 1942 when he left for the Quit India Movement struggle. There is an Adi Kutir, where Gandhiji stayed in a rural ambience. Then there is Ba Kutir, where Kasturba Gandhi stayed. There are kutirs (huts) for Jamnalal Bajaj, who funded Gandhiji for his social works. Everything is preserved here in the same way Gandhiji left them in 1942.

Many Gandhians have come for the prayer. Some people spin charkha and some recite the prayer. The followers and visitors sing together. Feroze is active with his camera and he keeps his presence and camera minimal in order to keep the sanctity of the atmosphere intact.

One has to remove the footwear for walking around in the campus. I remove my tough shoes and walk barefoot. The small pebbles and sand pinch my soles. It is after a long time that I walk barefooted. I remember Maria, the protagonist in Paulo Coelho’s novel, Eleven Minutes, which I have translated into Malayalam. Maria experiences the limits of her endurance through sex. Her artist friend makes her to walk barefooted on cold sharp stones. Both the experiences take her to the spiritual heights. I feel my spirit as the sharp stones pierce my soles.

Maria experience is not a lasting one. I wear my shoe and head towards the car. Our next destination is Maganwadi, where a permanent Gandhian Exhibition is arranged. It is already seven in the evening and we are late. But the benevolent warden of the campus opens the museum for us. We move around and see different kinds of charkhas and other Gandhian items. I think of condom made out of Khadi. I am irreverent even if I want to be reverent.

Our accommodation is arranged in Maganwadi. We get a three bed dormitory for our stay. I go and look around the room and washroom. The toilets are really dirty and it is a contrast to Gandhian ideals.

I am really tired but I have to write my diary. Before I sit to write, I prefer to have a drink. We all go out for dinner and I start my search for a drink. I am told that there is no liquor available in Wardha as the city follows Gandhian principles.

“But if you want, I can arrange,” tells the man who sells Jaljeera, a kind of cold drink from his makeshift shop.

He gets into the car and I drive into an alley that he points out. There, from a pan shop I buy two bottles of beer.

“You want to drink and I know where it is available, I just want to help,” tells the man who accompanies us as I offer him some money. He refuses to take it.

“He follows Gandhian principles in this matter. He does a ‘service’ to the ‘drinkers’ like me,” I tell myself.

Back home I never write after drinks, but in Wardha, I drink inside the car and come back to the Ashram’s guest house. There I write my diary and Feroze lines up the photographs. But 12 at midnight we upload the site.

I float in a beer induced sleep. I think Gandhiji would appear in my dream. I wait for him. All I could listen was the humming of mosquitoes.

Tomorrow is another day.

Fading Glory of an Institute

Kalacharya Pujya Pandhe Guruji Chitra Shilpa Mahavidyalay (Hon.Master Artist Pandhe Sculpture Institute), Khamgaon presents itself as a sepia toned picture. Time is frozen here. The architecture is magnificent and impressive. But a closer look reveals the dents in its façade and contours. It is from this old building, one of the two fine arts institutes in Khamgaon, Buldana district, Maharashtra functions. To be precise, this is the only institute that imparts exclusive training in sculpture. Many illustrious personalities including Mahatma Gandhi, Subhash Chandra Bose, Sardar Vallabhai Patel and Indira Gandhi had visited here. It also has produced interesting artists like Atul Mahajan and Nilesh Kumawat. But the current state of this institution gives us a very sad picture.

We reach Pandhe Guruji Chitra Shilpa Mahavidyalay around four o clock in the evening. Sanjay Gulani, the head of the institute receives us with happiness. He speaks to us about ‘fine arts college.’

The institute was established by Mukund Srikrishna Pandhe in 1921. He was a versatile artist with many qualities. He spent his time practicing sculpture, painting, music, literature and philosophy. The story goes that a young Pandhe was not admitted in Sir.J.J.School of Arts and he came to Khamgaon to start his own institute. He trained students in sculpture and painting, and also he inspired the students to pursue different fine arts forms.

Pandhe was attracted to Gandhian ideals. He started a Gandhian movement in the institute by incorporating spinning and making Khadi clothes. Gandhiji was so happy with Pandhe’s works and he even visited the art institute to see the nationalist fervour of students. Pandhe was such an ardent follower of Gandhiji, he wanted his students to follow the Gandhian ideals. Whenever Gandhiji called for strike, the students in this institute dared the British soldiers and got themselves jailed.

History of the nationalist movement still lingers around in the campus. Tilak Rashtriya Vidyalaya functions from here and it is under Tilak Rashtriya Vidyalay Trust. The sculpture college comes under this trust and is affiliated to the Directorate of Art. It follows the curriculum of Sir.J.J.School of Arts.

Small kids play in the school ground. They come from the surrounding villages. Their uniform, dresses made out of white khadi reflects the ideal of the school. Now the school has a computer centre, though the sculpture institute that comes under the same trust does not have a computer access. “Our students also will be trained in computer use,” says an optimistic Gulani.

The institute gives away Government Diploma in Sculpture. It is a five year course. The first year is in foundation of art. The succeeding four years are for sculpture education. The students are mainly taught in making portraits. The institute got affiliation with the Directorate of Arts, Mumbai in 1996. Ever since there is a minimal change in the curriculum.

“Previously we used to teach them only portraiture. Now with the affiliation, we teach them composition, life studies and creative sculpture,” says Gulani.

Many students from this institute have become famous sculptors in the mainstream art circuit. Some of them come back and give instructions to the current students. However, the institute and its students are bogged down by several limitations. Primarily, it lacks teaching faculty. There are three teachers now. One of them is a guest lecturer who teaches art history.

The library facility is minimum. There is no funds for the upgrading of the library. “The institute itself is running on the nominal fees given by the students. The trust does not have enough money. Hence the teachers also do not get any salary. We are given an honorarium. We do commissioned art works to earn a living,” explains Gulani.

The students who pass out from this institution either become assistants to famous artists or set up their own studios to do portrait works. Only a few students go out for higher education.

Even in its perennial struggle, the students have learnt to look up to the sunny side of life. They do hard work and they are excellent in portraiture and sculptural techniques. What they lack is opportunity and exposure. But the present state of things does not seem to give them much hope.

There is a small museum in the campus. There are several interesting murals, paintings and sculptures done by the direct students of Guru Pandhe. But many of them are already cracking or fading. The murals done directly on the walls are in the utter state of ruin. "During the rainy season water comes up to the level of windows. The walls get soaked and the murals are spoiled,” says Gulani. He is planning to restore them even if he has not received any financial assistance to do so.

“Is it a special story?” I ask myself when we return from the institute. I feel that it is the same story of the several regional fine arts colleges in India, may be with a different complexion.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Pandiram Mandavi-The King of Narainpur

Ever since we arrived Kumbharpara in Kondegaon, Bastar, Somu was telling us about an exciting meeting that was in the offing. He told us about Pandi Ram Mandavi, a sculptor from this region who had travelled all over the world to showcase his works. I had heard his name somewhere but had not given that much attention. When Somu said about him, I became very curious about this artist, who according to Somu, ‘is a man who looks like an Italian with blue eyes, light complexioned and with an attitude.’

So we set out to meet him. He stays at Naraianpur, forty two kilometres away from Kumbharpara. We are sceptical about gong to Narainpur as this region is famous for the Naxalite presence. The road that goes through a mono plantation forest is said to be infested with Naxal activities. We ask Bhupesh Tiwari of Saathi Samaj Sevi Santha about Narainpur and Pandiram. He tells us that now Narainpur is an independent district and there are full of police and army presence. One can go to Narainpur to meet Pandi Ram but on one condition; we should come back before sunset.

We get Suresh Verma, brother of Shiv Verma, an accomplished young artist from the Bastar region who currently works from Baroda, to accompany us. We drive towards Narainpur. Everything seems to be picture perfect; sylvan atmosphere with thick forests lining either sides of the road. Palak Raval, a young artist from Mumbai who has just arrived to spend one month in Bastar is with us in our car. The stereo plays a song of my liking from the famous bollywood movie, Sinngh is King.

We reach Narainpur around four in the evening and Pandi Ram’s studio is near a primary school ground. Somu had already warned us about the attitude of the artist. He had told us something like this: “Pandi Ram does not like photographers. He does not want to be photographed in his studio.” This had given us very strong picture about this artist. However, when we reach nobody is there at his studio, which I should say that no better than a usual shed that we seen in the Bastar region. There are three life size wooden sculptures depicting three female figures. Outside his studio there are couple of half finished wooden sculptures that show a complicate ensemble of man and animal figures.

I am surprised to see a Bamboo crafts centre poster at Pandi Ram’s studio wall. I have not seen the artist yet and I cannot say anything about him. All I know about him is that he looks like an Italian man with blue eyes and he does not want to be photographed in his studio.

Pandi Ram’s son is there at his studio. He informs us that his father is at home, which is a kilometre away from the studio. We ask him to accompany us and he comes along. He makes a call in his mobile and informs his father that we are on our way. Inside the car I am not able to concentrate on the music coming out of the stereo. I start chipping my mind with the tools of imagination so that I could carve out a figure of the artist whom I am going to meet in a few minutes’ time.

Somu stops the car in the middle of a village road, which is covered with full of red dust. A man with a small towel for a turban and a lungi for his waist cloth stand there grinning. His upper body is bare and he has a light complexion but obviously not Italian looks. I ask my friend whether it was the artist. He nods his head and says ‘yes’. I think Somu has exaggerated the facts. This man does not look from anywhere like an Italian man. His eyes are light but obviously not blue. His has a light complexion but he does not look like a white man. May be he looks like a mulatto, a mixture of white and black where white dominates the black complexion. He greets us with the same grin on his face. He knows Somu well and he shakes hands with us.

The fear I had for him now melts away. I feel the amicable presence of a simple village man with a smile. He leads us to his home. He is jovial in nature and has a lot of stories to tell. He does not boast off about his artistic talents but he looks like quite stately. There is something royal about his. Even in his simplest of clothes, he has a special personality.

I start talking to him in English and soon find out that he is more comfortable with Hindi. Then I switch over to Hindi. He talks about his last visit to Kerala for a Lalit Kala Akademy camp. He talks about Satyapal, who is currently the secretary of Kerala Lalit Kala Akademy. Satyapal was in Bastar for seventeen months and most of the artists and artisans know him personally.

Huge tamarind trees listen to our talk. Pigs move around. Dogs sniff along with us. Buffaloes look at us with some kind of curiosity. Village folks do not show any surprise in seeing us. But we are surprised to see the concrete paths laid along. We ask him about the concrete pathway, which looks out of place in the village setting.

“One day a famous official came to visit me. This road was kutcha and was full of mud. He came from the other side and climbed on the rocks to reach my home. But I insisted that he should go back through the mud path. His clothes were dipped in mud and within a month he ordered to have a concrete path here,” Pandi Ram recounts the story behind the concrete path.

While walking with us, he calls out to a man working in the brick field and the man runs away from there as if he had received a command from a king. We don’t understand what exactly has conspired between two of them.

We reach Pandi Ram’s house, which has several rooms in a row. There is a dog chained to a tree. Somu asks why the dog is chained while all the other animals and birds move around freely.

“Whenever a hen is caught and eaten by some other animal, the folks blame that my dog has done it. So I decided to keep him in chain. Now nobody complaints though their hens are regularly eaten by other animals,” says Pandi Ram with a grin.

Pandi Ram Mandavi, that is his full name, is a Muriya wood carver and he became famous during 1990s as he was taken up by the cultural impresarios and taken around all over the world. He was invited to each and every exhibition conducted by the government cultural departments. He travelled all over India and abroad along with his works and became pretty much rich in due course of time.

But today Pandi Ram looks like living in penury. May be, you have an urban eye. He does not think that he has lost everything due to government apathy or his wayward lifestyle. Whenever he got money, he lived like a king. He threw great parties for the villager folks at his home and in the gotul, village community halls. He spent his money in travelling along with his friends. And he married several times. Each room in his house has a wife living there, looking after his needs.

“There is a belief amongst the tribal people that they should not accumulate wealth or possessions. If they do, they turn greedy and it would create discordance amongst people.” That is the motto of the people and that is why Pandi Ram does not accumulate wealth. And we feel that he lives in penury.

Yes, these days he is finding difficult to meet his ends. He works in his farm and whenever he gets time he does his sculptures. He is an accomplished wood carver who learnt his techniques from his artisan father. He carves images from the simple life of the unassuming village folks. He makes relief sculptures in wooden panels and also does free standing sculptures.

“My ideas come from observing people around me. I don’t look outside for any subject. They are all with me. I live my works,” says Pandi Ram.

The whole Bastar knows Pandi Ram. Once upon a time, even in Delhi people knew Pandi Ram very well. They called Pandi Ram, Pandi Seth.

Now things have changed. Pandi Ram does not travel much except for when he is invited in Lalit Kala Akademy camps. “There are not too many patrons for sculptures these days.” Pandi Ram says. He does not stop photographers from taking his photographs any more.

At his courtyard he invites us to have some sulfy. Sulfy is a drink tapped from a coconut tree like tree. The man who has taken the order of Pandi Ram at the brick field brings freshly tapped sulfy. One of his wives makes ‘glasses’ to pour sulfy. Feroze does not drink sulfy. He takes the pictures of Pandi’s wife when she makes the leaf cups. Then he documents each step of its making.

Pandi has five sons and one daughter. Elder of them comes forward to pour sulfy into my leaf cup. I find dead ants, bees and flies in it. For a moment I feel revulsion. But without making a face I drink sufly. But I take care that the bees and ants would not get into my mouth. Seeing my discomfiture, Pandi’s wife brings a sieve and his son sieves the drink into a steel vessel. I pour sulfy from my leaf cup into the sieve. Now I can drink without bees.

It is said that when dead insects are found in the toddy or sulfy, it is pure. If it is adulterated, you would not see dead insects in it. So I was having pure sulfy.

After a few leaf full of sulfy I am high. I ask Pandi about the famous ‘ants chutney’ eaten by the tribes in Bastar. Feroze wants to document the making of ants chutney. Pandi asks his wife to look for ants. But she says that the ants are not seen.

The talk turns into huting games. We ask whether they do still go for hunting. Pandy has his witty answer for this.

“Now there are no bears and tigers in the forest. They all have gone or eaten by us. Soon ants also will disappear,” Pandi smiles.
Pandi Ram’s house has wood carved panels for doors. “Every time an interested buyer comes here, my home loses its doors. So I need to make them again,” says Pandi.

Pandi is a sculptor with no pretensions. He has seen the world and he has seen life. He does not want to accumulate wealth. So he even today goes to the field to look after the vegetables he has planted. His sons also carve wood. But he does not know whether they would pursue a career in art or not.

It is almost six in the evening. I am high on sulfy. Pandi accompany us to a local Bamboo crafts centre, where we see Pandi’s wooden chairs displayed along with Bamboo life style items. I realize why Pandi’s studio has a poster of this centre. Later we drop him back to the wayside where he met us for the first time.

It is thick dark. I wonder how he would find his way. “I can see in night,” he says and hugs me.

We reach the Narainpura road that leads to Kondegaon. It is night and it is said that Naxalites haunt the road after sunset.

Somu drives fast. I look out for Naxalites. I transform myself into one of them; a professional guerrilla.

And I allow the car to pass safe along the frightened and benumbed Narainpur road. I fly along with it as I am high on sulfy.

PS: By evening I feel like taking a picture of myself with a different look. Feroze trains his camera at me and I strike a pose and I get an Arnold Shwarznegger effect on my face.