Friday, July 29, 2011

A Circle Drawn by Fire: Life and Times of Sidharth 6

(From Mela Series by Sidharth)

You light an incense stick and draw a circle in the air. What do you see there?, asked Buddha one day to one of his disciples. Nothing, said the disciple. Draw it fast, make it go round and round. The disciple did so. And now he could behold a circle of light. He could also see the disappearance of the light circles within moments of their appearance. He looked at Buddha. He smiled; the benevolent smile of the master. Look, world is like a circle written out of fire. It appears before you as if it were real and the next moment it just vanishes, said Buddha. The disciple learned one of the fundamental principles about the world. Nothing remains. Everything is in a flux besides, everything is maya, an illusion. Budhha too had come out of Maya; his mother. But he was real and he was a real one who could recognize the maya of the world.

Sidharth looks at me while sipping green tea from his white porcelain cup. Out there in the garden children and old people have gathered for their evening revelry. Everything appeared quite real out there. Children playing, old people walking, middle aged women sitting at the park benches and sharing their kitchen news and the lazy ones just looking at the people with their not-so-registering gaze.

Buddha was born in the midst of all happiness, Sidharth begins while looking at the dumb charade down there in the park, seen through the glass wall of his studio. He had seen things as we are seeing the children playing down there. His father, as he knew that the boy was going to renounce the world, had kept him away from the worldly woes. Siddhartha was forced to detach himself from the world. He saw everything through the curtain of an illusionary happiness until one day he went out to see the world with his charioteer, Chandan. You must remember that Siddhartha was born to Maya Devi. She had her dreams while conceiving Siddhartha. She had received the greater spirit of the redeemer elephant in her womb. Shuddhodana, the father of Buddha knew that this boy was going to severe all the worldly ties. So he became very cruel to Siddhartha. Cruel in his own way, he kept him under surveillance, gave him all the worldly pleasures and even married him off with Yasodhara at a very early age. It took those many years for Siddharth to realize the world that it was all illusion.

Between illusion and reality, there is a small veil of perception. Or even we could say that there is a concrete wall between the reality and illusion that holds either of these realms separated with vengeance. But a small chink on the wall, things would be different. Happiness could turn into sorrow and vice versa. Through this gap you could see the other side of the world, the other side of the illusion. You suddenly recognize that it was just a circle of fire that you had been taking for an illuminated circle of joy. It is just like accidents opening up a new world of reality before the human beings. They have seen people sitting crushed against the steering wheels while the huge wheels of the truck climbing on the bonnets of their vehicles. They are not dead. They could see the world from their precarious and painful position. The world for them is no longer the same. It is an experience that leads you to the new world.

Sidhartha had the same experience before he became Buddha. Though an orphan Sidharth, our protagonist was in a way happy go lucky during his college years. Emergency had affected his mind but he had fought back with his senses to stay calm and focused. He just wanted to live and work. Life, for a young man like Sidharth was looking very beautiful, inviting and promising. It was then he got the opportunity to exhibit with the elder artists like Prem Singh and other friends who had formed a group in Chandigarh called the ‘Solids’. Participating in the Solid Group show was a boon for Sidharth. He was the only student who was invited to participate with the already established artists. Sidharth, today looking back at those days feels that the Solid group was not like a Progressive group of Bombay or Calcutta. It was just a practical solution for a group of artists operating from Chandigarh who wanted to exhibit their works to the public. They did not have any galleries at their disposal nor did they have any patron to support their creative careers. So they decided to do shows together. It was not ideologically knit.

While travelling with Chanda, the charioteer Sidhartha saw old people, crumpled by age and time, bent by the burden of life; he saw ill people shrunken to their bones, he saw death, poverty and pestilence and the veil of illusion was pulled away from before his eyes. The man who came back to the palace was not the same Sidhartha who had gone out with his charioteer. He was thoughtful and he wanted to find a solution for all these problems of the human beings. It was a great task and he did not know what to do with that. He found everything illogical. There was no logic to the proceedings of life. On the one hand you have all the happiness and on the other you have nothing. One day, I too am going to become like these old and ill people. It is just a question of time. Between this healthy and happy existence and that ill and desperate existence there was only a distance of a lotus thread. It could be snapped at any time. The lack of logic in things confused Sidhartha. He decided to leave the palace.

Imagine this situation, my friend, Sidharth tells me. I am all ears. Imagine this situation; a beautiful evening in some village in Punjab. Let it be my village or any village. The sun behaves like an action painter at the western end of the sky. At the horizon, he has stretched sky as the canvas. He is a mixed media artist. The clouds that come around are his additional materials. The wheat fields are ripe like the wheat fields in Van Gogh’s paintings. Instead of crows, larks and cranes fly around. Sun takes out his rays, dips them in various tones of red and yellow, and paints all what is available around him. The sky, the clouds, the wheat fields and everything is now daubed in different colours. While sun does his painting at the horizon, down here in the village, tired farmers sit on their charpoys to drink, sing and tell stories. Women and children gather around them, listen to them, feed them, love them and above all make them feel that they all belonged to some inexplicable feeling called happiness. The men proudly look at the wheat fields that they have tilled, sowed and nurtured now it is time to reap the fruits of their efforts.

What beautiful scene, right, Sidharth asks me. I nod in agreement. It is quite logical to understand this happiness, continues Sidharth. They have done their work and the earth has yielded their due. But then something happens which you find very difficult to explain with your sense of logic and reason. A few young men, belonging to the same community or Sikhs, complete with their kadas, kripans, kes, kanki and kaccha come by motorbikes. The village folk look at them with astonishment and curiosity. Children wave at them as they don’t see quite often young guys coming around by motorbikes. Suddenly the motorbikes stop there. The young men take out their AK-47 rifles and fire at this unsuspecting villagers. When they leave, they leave behind ten dead and several injured. How do you explain this situation? Sidharth goes into another spell of silence.

This was the beginning of 1980s. Punjab became a spot of attention not for its religious and agricultural flourish but for the separatists who claimed their own land, Khalistan from the mainland of India. The Khalistanis, for modern India, became the byword for ‘Terrorists and Terrorism’. For almost a decade Punjab held the attention of the whole nation for the unmindful killing of innumerable people by the Khalistanis. It eventually led the Indian Military to enter into the ultimate shrine of the Sikhs, the Golden Temple at Amritsar. Titled ‘Operation Blue Star’, it was one of the bold movements of any secular government in India, then led by the late Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi against a religious group took the path of terrorism and eventually took possession of the prime shrine of the Sikhs. They thought that the military would not take any action at a religious structure. But it did with iron hands. Pumping bullets into the temple, the fumed out the terrorists holed up there. The temple was vandalized. It got Indira Gandhi a lot of accolades but it also made her enemy to a lot of sections from the Sikh Community. They were for the wiping out of terrorism but they were not for the army to desecrate their shrine.

Those who know modern Indian political history knows that the Khalistanis were a product of the protectionist Congress mindset. Indira Gandhi wanted to keep the Akalis under check in Punjab using the new grown separatist leaders like Bhindren Walla. To create internal strife, the Congress ruled centre let certain confusions to happen in the religio-socio-political fabric of Punjab. Bhindren Walla was soon to be denounced by those who had brought him up. When the political conspiracy took the form of demanding a separate state from the Indian Union, Indira Gandhi had no other way than denouncing them publicly. With no political leadership than the fanatic demand for a different state, the Khalistanis turned to terrorism to hold the attention of the rulers. Once they were sure that their demands were not going to be granted they resorted to mindless violence along the length and breadth of Punjab, killing innocent people as if to take revenge against all the political parties. They did not think that they were killing their own people.

Those ten years were beyond all kinds of logic, says Sidharth. I was not a political being. I was spiritual and as you know I had gone through Sikhism, Buddhism and Catholicism. I should say even I knew a bit of Marxism in due course of time. My conversion into different isms was a part of my journey that I don’t regret. But somehow I could not understand this atrocities committed by a set of people against their own people to draw the attention of the rulers. What was the logic behind it? I did not understand why they killed the people. I started thinking about my childhood when all the youngsters were considered to be brothers and sisters. We never thought that we would be harmed by any of our brothers or sisters. But suddenly things were different.

Sidharth’s ‘Mela’ series has its roots deeply spread in the realities as well as the illusions of 1980s. Mela used to be the places where people gathered to share their happiness, remembers Sidharth. Melas were and still are the travelling fairs with spectacles, magic, circus, dance, songs and so on. According to seasonal changes different types of Melas used to take place in every village. People went there in groups, with their families, with their friends and with their lovers. They ate, drank, got their photographs taken, took rides in giant wheels, sucked it ice sticks, held balloons, heard singers, saw dancers, confronted death at the ‘well of death’ where daredevil boys drove cars and rode on bikes. People shrieked with happiness when the young man zooming past them on a motorbike extended his hand and took the notes held out to him by the excited spectators. When they walked back to their homes their tongues were full of new tastes, bags were full of new purchases, ears were full of new songs, feet were full of new dance steps and minds were full of new memories.

For me Melas were happening places like that, Sidharth says broodingly. And as a young boy I thought all those happy moments were real and permanent. And now as a young man in Chandigarh with the news of people getting gunned down around me filling in my ears, I started thinking about life itself as a circle drawn out of fire. The happiness was momentary. The mela grounds were just illusions. Mela grounds have now become killing fields. I heard several news items about the terrorists attacking Mela grounds. Also I came to know that the police had declared IPC 144 all over Punjab. This draconian law prevented people from gathering. More than two persons were considered to be a crowed and the police were given full authorities to take action against people. Many innocent people were unreasonably jailed. Melas were banned and the use of loud speakers was curtailed. The whole of Punjab , especially the rural Pujab became one vast gloomy graveyard with living and dead people.

Sidharth was a depressed man during that decade. I started painting my Mela series. Initially, I painted them as happy places; with people holding balloons and the places decorated with paper flags cut in triangle shapes. I have this habit of continuing with one theme for a long time till I feel that I could not do any more images on that theme. It happened the same with the Mela series too. Even without my knowledge the forms were changing. Initially I was giving stress on the people and their expressions. The colours that I used were sober. As I progressed in this series, that means as I was bogged even further down by the depressing news of killing and arson all over the rural Punjab, my palette took a different course. My palette started getting filled up with darker hues of reds, yellows, blues and browns. The people were disappearing from the pictorial surface. A sea of fire was getting prepared with the triangular spangles filling in them.

Mela Series was one of the pivotal series that Sidharth had done during his formative years as an artist. When we reach the matured works in this series, we find distorted human images as well as the predominant image of the loudspeakers with their ends growing like roots or shoots. They create an entangled feeling. And the floors are covered with broken bottles and shards of broken glasses. The triangular shape of glass pieces in a way correspond with triangular shape of the flags that fills up the upper portion of the paintings. So what you see is a medley of abstract forms, taking different tonal densities and imposing their visual presence before the eyes of the viewer.

Sidharth did more than three hundred paintings and drawings on this series. It was like exorcising myself of the negative feelings that had come to roost in my mind thanks to the terrorists activities in Punjab. I was no longer thinking of life as a real thing. It was without any logic or reason. Anything could have changed at any time. You could believe in yourself, your inner voices and you could strive for your truth. Rest was like the circle drawn by a lit incense stick.

(will continue....)

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