Monday, August 1, 2011

Decoration and Desecration: Life and Times of Sidharth 9

(from the Decorated Cow series by Sidharth)

(Sculpture from the Decorated Cow Series)

Right in the middle of the road she sits and looks around lazily. She knows that she is going to be shooed away by anyone. Traffic constables come to her, touch her forehead and place the hands on their foreheads. They feel blessed. People rush into the temple to have a glimpse of the lord who was a poor rustic visionary. Now people come to see his marble idol in costly cars. Gods always have the last laugh. She looks at these devotees; had she not been mute she would have teased them with her sharp words as she now teased the flies swarming around her. She knows for sure that they would come to her and seek her blessings and give her food in return. I am becoming lazy these days, she thinks. There was a time when she had to roam around a lot gather her food. But today, she just needs to sit here and look at the people. They like her and they worship her. Those people who come around with cameras hanging around their necks take my pictures and I like them a lot because they are the people who take our glory all over the world. I have even been acted in a few documentaries, she thinks proudly.

She is a cow. She sits in the middle of the road. On Delhi roads it is a usual sight. Perhaps only in Delhi you could see these many cows and bulls roaming around. Often they are docile and at times they become violent. People keep their left over rotis (bread) in front of their homes and these cows come and eat them all. They drink water from the puddles. Delhi is not safe for women. If you are a young woman and if you want to go out and work at night or come back home after your work, you are not safe in the streets of Delhi. You could be dragged into a moving SUV and raped. This is a terrible city. Cows also face the same fate. They don’t want to be loved by bulls all the time. But there are so many wandering bulls in this city. They, right in front of the thousands of eyes, climb over them, humiliate them, scare them and wound them. We just don’t want that to happen, thinks our cow. But what to do, once a bull always a bull. They just don’t listen and behave, she sighs.

Foreigners take a lot of pleasure in seeing them because they cannot imagine cows sitting in the middle of the roads in their own countries. They like the cultural and religious angle that protects the cows from being chased away from the public places. They like the stereotype of India or Indian streets where you could see an elephant, a camel, a cow, a donkey, impoverished rickshaw pullers, hand carts, Audis, BMWs and the four wheelers that are driven by cripples by their rough hands covered with customized hand sandals made out of rubber tyres. Where else you could see such a fabulous sight in which you see a Hummer being chased by a beggar in his four wheeler? That’s why we call our country ‘Incredible India’. But we cows by now have become the victims of these stereotypes, says our cow. Do you think that only because we are holy animals people treat us with care and love. Oh come on, the cow tells me. Just trust me, these worshippers who throng around the temples to seek blessings from God, are just hopeless people. The come and feed me. Do you know when we go to their homes, after eating a few rotten dry rotis, if we hang around more, these very same people chase us away because they don’t want their cars to be scratched by us. They don’t want their driveways to be dung-ed by us. Dunging, nice word, isn’t it? She winks at me.

Only god can slap with one hand and pat with the other hand. Life is like that. But human beings also do the same, continues the cow. We go to the local markets, which we call mandis or haats. We are regular there like the beggers, hafta vasoolis (extortionists), uniformed constables and the people who search for the cheapest vegetables. When we go there, the vendors give us a banana, some peels of cabbage, a carrot, a cucumber and so on. And you see, we are big animals. You have taken over our grazing lands. The pastures have gone now and in their place you have built luxury apartments with gardens and greeneries. We and the monkeys are chased out from our own lands. So even if these vendors give us some vegetables, we always look out to gobble up more. When these guys haggle with the folks, we just steal some vegetables. And you see what kind of reward they give us for that. She shows me a huge scar on her right side. He just took out his lathi (stick) and beat me till she sprayed him with my dung and ran away from there. Can you believe it? This was the same guy who had just worshipped me with camphor and coconut just before he placed his thela (moveable shop), cow sighs.

But the other day, one person followed me and I was really scared. Generally children follow us. Foreigners and NGO (non governmental organizations) people too follow us. The former want to take our pictures and the latter want to know about our welfare, says the cow. But this man was neither a foreigner nor an NGO guy. He looked old with a white moustache. A young guy was also with him. I was shit scared because I knew such situations where people like us are stalked and waylaid and raped. Delhi is not safe for women as you know. I started trotting and he was asking me something and was laughing like anything. It scared me a lot. He had some plans, I knew and I did not want to fall for his nefarious plans. But when someone in the way called him out ‘Sidharth’, I was a bit relieved. I stood there and pissed without shame. I was holding it for long time. I was relieved because of the piss and because of the name, Sidharth. The moment I heard the name something was evoked in me. I knew about Sidharth. My grandmother had once told me the story of a man who had left his palace to redeem the world and all the being in there including cows. I walked calmly afterwards and the guy followed me till I joined my friends at the shore of Yamuna. He took some photographs and left. But he came again and again. I hated him for following me. But then you are a female. You cannot be rude and avoiding for long. We became friends finally. By the way do you know him? The cow asked me. I smiled at her.

Sidharth, you are really interesting man, I tell Sidharth. For a project of yours you just harassed a cow. Sidharths laughs his heart out. There are two sides to any stories. And the third side is the outcome of the story. And a story teller is prone to go for the fourth dimension where surprises are hidden and in the fifth dimension of the story, you start feeling that the images are just metaphors and in the sixth dimension you understand life and you feel that the story is not a story but your life itself. Yes, I did stalk this cow who has befriended you know and the outcome was my project ‘Decorated Cow’, a show of paintings, sculptures, photographs and videos shown at the Religare Arts i Gallery, New Delhi. Please tell me how you decided to move from your transcendental concerns to a topic, which is clearly a pressing issue of our contemporary society, I ask him. Sidharth again laughs but this time his laughter is deeper.

Decorated Cow, as a project has a series of paintings, sculptures and a video. In the painting series Sidharth treats cows in their different representations; mythical, cosmic, the lost, maternal and the all embodying emblematic cow. Each cow is decorated with the attributes ranging from their mythical references to the contemporary references. In the sculptures, Sidharth attempt at making the cows contemporary icons with their bodies interpolated with images that are pertaining to the polemics of their lives. In the video Sidharth deals with the way in which the village folk take cows decorated with cowry shells and other paraphernalia around the places and make them predict the future of the believers. They get paltry sums for doing this. Cows become a holistic presence not only in the Decorated Cow series of Sidharth.

I was looking out of my studio watching the empty garden down there on a summer afternoon, remembers Sidharth. I did not have any intention to do any work on cows or any other animal. I was in a different trip after doing the Barah Maha series. Suddenly, the sky darkened and thunders rumbled. It started drizzling. A cow was standing in a lane between my studio and the garden. The moment the water drops fell on her, the cow started running. I found the scene really funny. I asked my assistant to take the camera and come along. We went down stairs and started going behind the cow. I was laughing like anything. I could not suppress my laughter because I found the way the cow ran to avoid rain drop really funny. I started talking to the cow. I asked her why she ran when she did not have anything to protect. You are not like human beings, I told her. You are not like people with vanity and ego. You are not clothed. You are not wearing expensive dresses or ornaments. What are you trying to protect from getting drenched. Why are you running away? You are a natural being and why you behave like a cultural being? I was laughing and I did not know I was literally running behind the cow. Someone from the neighbourhood even called out my name to ask whether everything was okay with me.

It was the beginning of the project, Decorated Cow. Sidharth followed her the whole day. And he did not know that he was really frightening her. Seriously I did not know. In my mind different things were passing by now, says Sidharth. I wanted to know where the cow was going. I asked my assistant to follow me. We walked behind the cow and found many other cows and bulls on the way. My assistant was clicking photographs. Finally we reached the Yamuna riverbed by evening. To my shock I found several cows reached the place by evening. And it was not the Yamuna of Lord Krishna, who used to herd his cattle near this river by gau dhooli time. As you know Gau Dhooli is a time in the evening before the actual setting of sun, when the cattle return to their shelters raising a lot of dust from their hoofs all the way back. This particular time has a special sheen as the rays of a setting sun shine and glow the dust particles. The whole area looks like a covered with golden dust. It is a time when the shepherd plays his flute and leads his pack to home. It is a time when the lovers separate. It is the moment when the finger tips of the day touches the finger tips of the night and both of them shiver by their touch. This is a moment of nostalgia, memory and separation. And it is very intense.

On the banks of the Yamuna River where the cow had led me I did not find any Gau Dhooli, Sidharth continues. Instead, I found heaps of rubbish dumped by the scavenging vehicles deployed by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. Now the Yamuna Riverbed has become a range of hills of garbage. Reeking in the pungent smell of rotting organic waste and the never putrefying plastic waste, I stood there and watched the poor cows, like the destitute kids, eating the plastic waste and the rotting organic waste. It was a pathetic sight. I did not know whether these cows were owned by some people or they had been abandoned by their owners. But one thing for me was clear then and there. I was going to respond to this situation.

The first thing that Sidharth did after the encounter with the cows in the dump yard was to go to the NGO people who worked towards the welfare of the cows in the city and learn more about the present condition of these cows. From them, he came to know that most of these cows were abandoned by their owners. Many of them did have owners but they reclaimed only when they became pregnant. As most of the owners did not have enough gracing lands to feed them, they let the cows go wherever they wanted. As they knew that the cows have a special place in the Indian psyche, they knew for sure that they were not going to be picked up by the authorities. Also they knew that the wandering cows would be fed by the god fearing people in the city. To his horror, Sidharth also came to know that many of the cows die in their destitution only because at a time they consume almost twenty kilograms of plastic waste. This plastic waste get into their stomach and it never gets digested. Slowly these cows develop some kind of suffocation and they are all choked to death.

I realised how cruel are those people who worship the cows on the one hand and let them die terrible deaths on the other, Sidharth says. The cruelty was unbearable. People like the stereotypes about Indian streets with cars and cows. They like to photograph the streets with this combination of images. But they don’t understand how badly we behave to these poor animals. Hence I went on to study all the references of cows in the Indian mythologies and the same from elsewhere and to my shock I found out that though they many cultures have the tradition of worshipping cows, only in India we worship and mistreat the cows at the same. I wanted this reality to be highlighted through visual means. Hence I divided the subject into various topics; cosmic cow, lost cow, mythical cow and so on. With this I could deal with various aspects of the idea of representing a cow in the popular psyche. In this series, by celebrating these areas of representation of cows, I surreptitiously forward a critique on how despite of all these representational strategies we mistreat the cows in real life. At the same time I cannot go far away from those people who really treat cows with respect and love. Hence I made use of the transcendental elements to vivify the same theme elevating the images into the level of metaphors.

There is something nostalgic and sociological about these cows. There is a cow related economics in this country. When a cow is worshipped or mistreated, there is a slight rearrangement in the economics and sociology of the country. When a rustic mendicant adopts a cow and takes her around decorated in cowry shells and embroidered clothe, he and the cow together enter into an economy of existence. It has a spiritual and superstitious side to it at the same time it assures both of them a social space and sustenance, which otherwise would be denied to them. In his short film on cows and in the video, Sidharth shows such a decorated cow standing in the middle of a busy street and he plays it in a reverse order in which the cow is seen getting decorated and getting stripped in sequence. This continuous play of decorating and stripping highlights the sort of aggression that we do to these poor creatures.

At times I tend to think that there is something more to the Decorated Cow project of Sidharth. Is it simply his concern for the cows or is it his concern for the women? Is it the way of transporting an image into another metaphor? Or is Sidharth a feminist under cover? Sidharth laughs heartily. This is a good question. I always like an image transcending into a metaphor. I am always looking out for images that could turn into a metaphor. An artist is successful in his renditions when he could move the image from its image-ness to the level of a metaphor. I believe that if you push image up it becomes a metaphor and push it down it becomes an illustration. In that sense, if you could see the image of a cow becoming a metaphor of women all over the world, especially those from India where women are worshipped and door-matted at the same time, then I am happy to know that. I am not a feminist undercover. I am a humanist. Art is my religion.

Sidharth looks out of the studio and I follow his gaze. I could see another cow standing there. They are always there waiting for the mercy of the people. Seriously speaking, when I did the Decorated Cow series, I was really agitated. Now that I have crossed the turbulent waters I could tell you for sure that it was all about the plights of the cows to begin with. Then I slowly realized that I was recounting the story of the earth itself, which has been choked by plastic ages for a long time. I smile at him. It is interesting to see you turning into an activist, I tell him. It is not about activism, sir, in his characteristic style e addresses me. It is the concern of a human being, who has not escaped from this world.

(to be continued)

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