Thursday, October 27, 2011

Baroda and the Fine Arts Faculty: To My Children Series 23

(Fine Arts Faculty, Baroda)

Today when I drive through the roads of Baroda I feel a strange sensation. The streets looks strange, alien and I feel a great disconnect. When I was a student here I was very much connected to these streets though I did not have too many friends. Those friends I had were very good people and they entertained me as much as they could and in turn I used to entertain them with my poems, songs, mimicry and a bit of intellectual talk. Perhaps, when you are drunk, intellectuals stuff gives way to the popular things. If it is a Malayali crowd, I would say Marxism gives way to old Malayalam songs, that too romantic ones. Everyone likes a good Malayalm romantic song, the way Bengalis always like a Rabindra Sangeet irrespective of location, time and space. Today I have a lot of friends in Baroda and the level of hospitality has increased quite high too. But still I feel a strange disconnect.

As I mentioned in the previous chapter, my second coming to Baroda was on a rainy day. I did not know where to go and the places that I knew were the boys’ hostels and Shibu Natesan’s place in Nizampura. When I went there first, after almost escaping from a pressing situation in Kerala, it was the peak of summer. Shibu was always busy with his works and social engagements and he got time to meet me only after the night fall. He had taken me to one of the boys’ hostels where T.V.Chandran and Manoj stayed. T.V.Chandran was expected to submit his dissertation in the Art History department and was supposed to leave on the next day in an early morning train in which he had a seat reserved. So he asked me whether I could go to the department and hand over the dissertation to one of the teachers there. I happily agreed. Hence even before becoming a student in the fine arts faculty officially I had this great opportunity to submit a dissertation there, though it was by T.V.Chandran. His dissertation was on the face painting of Teyyam performers from the North Kerala. Today T.V.Chandran teaches Art History at the Trivandrum Fine Arts College and publishes art historical articles in journals.

Left alone in middle of a city that was absolutely strange to me then, often I found myself sleeping or wandering around. I was desperate in several ways and Manoj was the only friend I had. He was a very friendly guy with some sort of odd behaviour. We stayed in somebody’s room on a second floor in the hostel. Often we saw thousands of bed bugs travelling out of the room once the iron beds got really heated up in the unbearable heat of the summer sun. None bothered to kill them. If they killed them they came back in hoards with some kind of vengeance. So I spent my vacant hours counting bed bugs and studying their behaviour while listening to the stories of Baroda recounted by an equally disturbed soul like Manoj.

Manoj was a student in BFA sculpture and when I met him was either rusticated from the department or was undergoing some kind of punishment for not depositing his dues or something like that. He wandered around in his khakhi corduroy pants and a T-shirt whose colour was violet once upon a time. He often gnashed his teeth as if he was venting his ire against some invisible forces. And on his skin I found several round patches which were the scars of burning. Someone later told me that he had the tendency to torture himself and he placed hot coins on his skin in order to ‘heal’ himself.

In one of his stories Manoj recounted how he was forced to live in other people’s rooms and how he had to subsist on other’s charity. He used to a great reader of the Russian literature translated in Malayalam and was quite popular in Kerala. And he spoke in a language that resembled the language translation. So he said: “One day I was coming back to my room after having tea from a roadside shop. It was a full moon night. Nothing was moving. All the students had gone to sleep. In the corridor, with a forty watt bulb layering everything with an eerie hue and letting long shadows of iron bars and grills falling along the corridor, I saw myself standing. I did not have the key to my room. The warden had locked up my room with a different lock as I had not fill in my dues. All my possessions were inside the room. So I entered the room from the balcony. I sneaked in through the backdoor and to my shock I found out that all my things were taken away by the warden. Since then I am left with this one pair of clothes.”

One day Manoj took me to the post office and that day he looked extremely happy. I knew, from his innumerable stories, how he celebrated when his father sent money via money order. We were there at the post office to collect his money sent by his father. There were a lot of girls standing at the counter. The clerk asked him to sign a receipt. To take out his pen, Manoj pushed his right hand into his pocket. And while taking it out, with a loud thud something fell on the floor and all the girls started giggling. My attention too was focused on the object that fell from his pocket with a rather metallic noise. It was a barber’s equipment- an old form of battery driven haircutter. It looked like miniature tiller. The girls were laughing at it! Manoj gnashed his teeth and with a studied movement he picked it up and kept it back inside his sagging pocket. Later on he told me that he used this machine to cut the hairs of all those ‘successful’ artists who resided in Baroda and to this service they offered him some money, food and good company.

Manoj was quite a Lacanian. He wanted to see how others saw him, through his own eyes. The legends of Baroda say that Manoj was in love with a girl who was not in love with him at all. He thought that she was in love that was why she was ignoring him. One day he was sitting at the steps of the old building in the faculty and the girl came from a distance and he thought that she was looking at him. When the girl passed by without giving any damn to the royal presence of our hero, he made another guy to sit in the same place where he was sitting and he went to that point from where the girl walked and assessed how she might have ‘framed’ him from that distance! He was a very happy presence and for me he was very soothing in my loneliness. We spent our afternoons, lying on the lawn around the huge Banyan Tree sculpture made by Nagji Patel at a traffic island in Baroda. It was with Manoj I left for Kerala to meet Kalapana. At Kannoor railway station we parted ways and I have never met him till date.

When I reached Baroda on the second time it was monsoon. The city was facing flood situation and many places were already submerged. Luckily I got an auto and went straight to Shibu’s place. To my shock I found his house was surrounded by water till the doorstop. There was a neem tree right in front of the house and around it there was a raised cemented platform. It was already dark and none was seen around. Hoping that Shibu would come back soon I waged through the water, climbed on the platform and sat there, waiting impatiently for Shibu. It was growing darker and I found myself marooned like a shipwrecked sailor in the middle of the vast expanse of water. I lit a cigarette and smoked without taste and a sense of growing fear. Suddenly from a distance, across the ground which now looked like a still lake, on the terrace of a three storied building I saw the glimpse of an ember burning. Someone was standing there and smoking.

“ that Johny?” a voice came with a thick accent. I recognized the voice. It was the voice of Moses, a Kenyan student studying law or some other subject. He stayed across the ground in front of Shibu’s place and once in a while he came to have a drink and chat with Shibu. He had seen me in my previous visit and had befriended me.

“Yes, its me,” I hollered back. He told me that he was coming. I felt relieved. I saw the ember flickering down through the stairs and coming towards me.

Like the mythical Moses he came, wading through the water, parting it into either side. He was minus large mane and beard and for a staff he had an umbrella in his hand.

He took me to his home where his girlfriend served me with a cup of hot tea. After a while, Moses took me to the MA Hall of the boys’ hostel.
I don’t remember the room number. But I remember each and every face there. Shibu Natesan was sitting on the cot, grinning. So was Alex Mathew. Final year MA students Salim and Gopan Perumbada was also there. Antony Karal, Baiju Kurup and several others were sitting. Many of them I was seeing for the first time. Gopan was cooking something in a pressure cooker. Salim was smoking. Perhaps, everyone in the room was either smoking or drinking. Through the curtain of smoke and mirth I saw the glowing faces of my friends and future associates.

Moses handed me over to Shibu. I thanked Moses for all the help. Then someone extended a glass filled with some drink to me. Even without asking what it was I bottomed it up into my mouth. Strong rum burnt its own way through my innards. Someone handed over a cigarette to me. I dragged it. Something exploded in my head. I was grinning like everyone else in the room. Someone was singing. Many were chatting. In the growing din I too talked, sang and had several rounds of drinks and smoke. Things were welling up in me. I wanted to vent them out. I knew the topography of the hostels from my previous visit. I rushed to the bathroom area. Standing in front of a series of washbasins and mirrors I puked. Things flowed out of me. My past, my ignorance, arrogance, vanity and everything. I raised my head and looked at the mirror. There, a different man was standing with his moustache and beard drenched in the foul syrups of past. I could not wash my face and bring the new being out before that with a big bang I collapsed on the floor. I could see a thousand watt bulb flashing and going dark inside my head.

(Feroze Babu, JohnyML and Somu Desai- after 14 years when I decided to flag off my art routes, I chose fine arts faculty as the starting point. Just before we started off from Baroda for the Art Routes trip- for more

It must be after half an hour or so when I woke up. Around ten anxious faces were hovering above me. And I could focus them one by one. Zooming and out. And when they saw me trying to recover from the shock of falling, they too felt relieved. “We heard a big noise and when we came there you were lying like a heap on the floor,” Shibu told me later. “Then we together carried you back to the room.” I got up and drank again, my fear was gone. I felt like a new person and I was ready to face Baroda.

As a student of the Art History Department of Fine Arts Faculty I don’t have much to say. Most of my experiences are outside classrooms. Even after officially getting admitted there at the art history department, I was not allotted a hostel room. I was living with my friends in the hostel. I was experiencing the ‘Gujarati’ and ‘pujabi’ dals in the hostel mess. In the meanwhile I got one of the cycles abandoned by the previous students from under the staircase of the hostel and got it repaired. One day Shivji Panicker who was one of the teachers in the department asked me whether I could stay in a house outside the campus. The owner of the house was a famous dancer and he was going on a foreign tour for two months. And during those days he needed someone to be at home, take care of it and keep it functional. So it was a mutual arrangement. I immediately grabbed on the offer and started living in that house.

It was a good house though I don’t feel, today, attached to that house at all. Shivji used to come and visit me there once in a while and I used to make tea for him. Sometimes he talked of his gay inclinations. He used to be a great friend in the beginning. Somehow we fell apart as time progressed. I questioned several of his ideas and he disliked me to the core as I was not following his ideas. Ratan Parimoo was my teacher. He was a great teacher and a great guide. He had single handedly built the archives of the Art history department. Though he was a teacher of conventional art history I liked the way he developed methodology and tried us to guide through the difficult areas of art history. If you ask me who was my teacher I would say without any doubt, it was Ratan Parimoo. Deepak Kannal was another teacher who was not so close to me. But when a Gujarati Encyclopaedia was in preparation he asked me to write an article on Cholamandal or something and it was my first major ‘art historical’ writing, which got published in fact in Gujarati language, though till date I have not seen that publication.

The first year in Baroda was rather difficult for me though I had several friends. N.S.Harsha was my batchmate. So was Arun Kumar H.G. I was desperately looking for a girl friend not because I lacked friends but because I wanted something more. So I started looking around for girl friends. Other friends used to tell me that having a girl friend is one important thing in Baroda. My hunt for girl friends was rather silent one. I dipped my despair in books, cigarettes, smoking weeds, drinking cheap liquor and so on. One day when none was around there in the archives I asked one girl from some other department whether she could go with me for a cup of tea. She looked at me and walked out of the archives. That was the end of my asking someone out. I thought I was an utter failure with girls. Especially my past history made me think totally hopeless and ineffective. The more I thought low of myself the more I engaged myself in reading and then smoking. In between I thought I was in love with a girl from the senior batch. And later on I came to know that she fell ill knowing that. I felt so sick of hearing all these.

By the end of the first year I was sure that there was no hope for me in the case of having girl friends. It was time to think about dissertation and by then I was looking like a desperate bohemian with long beard and hairs. I chose 1970s art scene in Kerala as my dissertation topic. Cholamandal, the artist village was one of the areas of studies for me. I decided to travel and make use of the vacation time in doing my dissertation. It was during this time the first year students went for a study trip in Sarnath, Sanchi and Konark. I too joined the team. While in Konark, I realized that I was not interested in art history at all because I was not understanding a thing that the teacher was telling us. I tried to focus on things but the more I tried the more I became depressed. By night when the team decided to unwind on a river bank with cheaply available drinks and songs under a full moon sky, I was already high on my desperation. I drank a lot and went off. Some students helped me back to the bus, then to the inn where we were staying. In between, inside the bus, one girl came and asked me whether I needed any help and she offered me some soft drinks. Her name was Mrinal Kulkarni.

Mrinal Kulkarni was my classmate. I had not particularly noticed her. She was always with the gang of a few that included Jayaram Poduval, Monal Iyer and Abha Seth. They were always together. I kept away from this gang because they had been together for almost six years and I was a new comer. I never had any particular interest in Mrinal at that time. But before I left for the first year vacation I saw her coming towards the art history department and I was standing somewhere up in the first floor. I looked at her. She was wearing a blue skirt and check shirt tucked in. Later I saw her near the steps of the art history department where Jayaram’s gang always sat. While leaving the place I asked her when she was coming after the vacation. She said something and that was the only communication I had with her.

Second year started with a different note. I had worked very hard and travelled to Chennai to collect my data. And also I had the opportunity to meet several living artists and interview them. When I went back to Baroda I was all set to become a focused student. Hemant Singh Arimbam from Manipur was my best friend in the class. He was very soft spoken and always seen with a smile on his lips. One day I told him that I wanted ask Mrinal whether she could come with me for a cup of tea and whether he could accompany me. He smiled and told me that I could do it on my own. With a trembling heart I asked Mrinal to go out with me to Kaakki’s larry, a makeshift tea shop run by an old woman and her husband. We went and had tea.

Then on a rainy day, I asked her whether she could meet me out near the Kamati Garden. She said yes. I was waiting for the rain to stop and the evening to come. Most of the place was water logged. As the rain was not abating I decided to go in the rain and meet her. As cycle would be a handicap, I decided to walk. She was waiting for me at the steps of her hostel. She saw me coming towards her with rolled up jeans and wet shoes. She smiled at me and I smiled at her. Then together we stepped into the water and continued our walking.

Plague. It started off in Surat, people said. It was coming towards Baroda. People were panicking. Students gathered around and discussed the situation. The hostel wardens ordered for fumigation and cleaning up of hostel premises. By the time most of the students were leaving for other parts of the country. It was said that the students coming from Gujarat were stopped at the state borders and checked them for carrying viruses. It was then Gopan Perumbada, then a final year sculpture student stepped in. He made some magical declarations and said that he is going to have a ‘havan’ (sacrifice with fire) that evening at the faculty of fine arts. He made special arrangements for it. What he did was this: He brought some anti-virus tablets, of course after consulting certain doctors, and threw them on fire and the fumes came out of it cleaned up the air. Or we believed it. Next morning everyone was asking for Gopan. But by that time Gopan had crossed the Gujarat bordered in the first available train with his help and friend, Babu.

Love in the times of plague. We decided to stay back. In a deserted city of Baroda myself and Mrinal and people like us stayed back to brave the attack of plague. We braved the disease because we were in love. And we got ample amount of time for ourselves to know each other. As the intensity of the love affair increased, my meetings with other friends became less frequency or were all postponed to late nights. They approved of my love only because I was hopeless in the first year. Many could guess who was my girl friend was even without me telling her name to them mainly because Mrinal was the only other girl who did not have a boy friend all these years. As time passed, our meetings were extended to Kamati Garden, a huge garden mainly used by the lovers, joggers and voyeurs. And we did all we could do sitting on the park benches shrouded either by darkness or by Mrinal’s chunni.

Love is blind and next to no logic. That’s why we decided to leave our hostel rooms and decided to live in a separate house rented in Baroda. What prompted us to do this was up to anyone’s guess. Some benevolent friends used to give us their houses when they left the city for few days. And during desperate occasions we had saved money to check in a hotel, that too right in front of the gate of the boys’ hostel. Years later, when I checked in the same hotel, I opened the room with a smile on my lips. For this room, once upon a time, we had struggled a lot.

Mrinal also used to ride a cycle. So one day we rode to the outskirts of the city looking for a good place to live. And finally we found out of near Sama. Still I am clueless about this particular building. The landlord decided to rend it out to us for five hundred rupees or something. It was quite a lot of money at that time. We looked at each other and agreed. Then there was a frantic search for arranging things for a functional house. Once we moved in that place we were already tired. But physical proximity made us forget the hardships of life. And I never thought once why we took this step. But one day we were forced to think about our foolishness. As we were forced to look out for kerosene, vegetable and so on, we asked ourselves why we did this move. And one day without telling anyone, in an afternoon, while everyone was taking a nap, we bundled up the things on our cycle carriers and rode away from the place. We rode so fast that even a car chasing us could not have stopped us. Back in hostel, we felt so happy. We became normal again. But the hardship that we faced at Sama was just a beginning. We were destined to face a lot more in the coming days.

You may ask why I did not write anything about my studies. There is nothing much to talk about it. I have always been a good student and with a very inquisitive mind and reading capacity. Even through the direst of situations I had kept myself focused on studies. There were no pending assignments or failure in class projects. I came out with a first class. And if you ask me what exactly I learned from the Art History department of Baroda, I would say I learned a lot from my fellow students, from the artists who lived in the city, from the city itself, from the mess boys, from the chai larry wallahs, from all those people who neglected me, who supported me, loved me , hated me and so on. The archives and library were a great help in my studies. Also I was seriously involved in the film club movement in the faculty and on the first year I was the secretary of the film club. I remember myself and Baiju Kururp travelling to Pune to procure a few movies and carrying the film box to the bus stand and to the faculty. Also I was introduced to Hindi films and Hollywood movies in a big way. We watched a lot of Hollywood movies in Baroda, almost one in a week. And a lot of blue films that the boys in the hostel showed religiously on Saturday nights in one of the common rooms. My education was very good in Baroda.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Me and My Gay Friends

Several gay men are attracted to me. And I ask them why? Every day one or the other man comes to my life and knocks at my doors of emotions. They declare their love for me and some literally stalk me, of course over Facebook.

I ask myself even when I ask these gu/ays why they like or love a person so much. I tell them that they have not even met me. What they have seen are some profile pictures. And from no angle I look attractive. Like many others who post intellectual stuff, trivia and classical music on the walls of facebook to seek attention, I too change my pictures, perhaps with the same intention.

But I seek attention mostly for my writings; anyway not for my looks. So often, when I get soliciting chats and phone calls from my gay friends, I wonder what makes me so attractive to men who come from different countries.

They don’t have too many words to explain that. Some say that they like me ‘just like that’. Some say, ‘I have finally found the one I have been waiting for all these years’. Yet another lot say, ‘You look hot’.

I wish more women said all these things about me. But I am not disheartened by my gay friends. In fact I enjoy their attention.

There is this young man happily married and settled who wants to see me every day. He takes care of me in this virtual sphere as if he were my wife. He asks me whether I had breakfast on time, lunch on time, whether I am feeling headache, pain on shoulders and shall he come over and massage me. I send endless smilies to him.

Once in a while he calls me. He speaks to me when am I going to meet him. I say, ‘soon’. I don’t want to hurt him.

The other day a young man in his early twenties came and started chatting with me. He wanted to have a ‘relationship’ with me. I told him that I could be his uncle to which he responded with these words, ‘I like forty plus people like you.’ I spoke to him at length, tried to dissuade him and told him that I did not find his behaviour offensive but I could not entertain it. He said he was in love with me.

I wonder how people could fall in love with a profile picture.

I don’t judge them. In fact I like them. Not because they give me too much attention and they tend to pamper me but just because they too are human beings caught in a different zone with no escape.

But why gays only articulate their existence through sex? Can’t there be a normal relationship between two human beings? Why they drag everything into sex?

As a man of forty plus years I am not a stranger to same sex relationships in my personal life. Growing up years had seen me too in sharing beds with friends and cousins, exploring our sexuality through imagined penetrations and abundance of foreplay.

In Trivandrum a few gay friends had begged me to sleep with them. I thought it was strange to sleep with a friend with an intention to do sex. Often it happens when you don’t intend to do it.

I had broken the heart of a man who was in love with me. He became an enemy. And he still remains one.

A well known gay activist and intellectual friend of mine is terribly in love with me. Jokingly I asked him what he was going to do with me. I don’t know whether it is good to write it here, but what is there to be curtained and curtailed? So I write as he said:

“I will suck your dick, I will do everything for you. I will massage you. I will do all what you boring heteros don’t do.”

I laughed. I told him: “These are exactly the same things the ‘boring’ heteros generally do.”

I am not averse to the idea of getting pampered. But that’s not just limited to gays.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Strange Pilgrims: Journey of Three People into the Land of Secret Touches

Cross the road, stand on the pavement where strangers stride, extend your palms, ask for alms. Suddenly, you realize life is a blessing and a boon granted by somebody beyond your reach. Strangers look at you with their dispassionate eyes. Some will look through you and some will take pity on you. On your open hands they may throw a few coins. Collect them. One day you may need them to understand your own life.

Life is a pilgrimage and a sort of begging. Slavoj Zizek says that we should not be talking about charity, instead we should be thinking about a world where the very notion of charity does not exist. Zizek is right. But what about those unknown hands and faces that lift you up when you faint into your own shadow, in a strange land on an unbearably hot day? Who were those people who just appeared before you from nowhere with a jug of water, when you were thirsty?

Living on charity is one thing. Regaining your life through charity is another. Often between the giver of charity and the receiver of it there develops a subtle connection based on hurt. The giver feels good because he feels the worth of giving. He becomes a hero before his own eyes and those of others. He becomes eternally connected to the receiver only because he wants to relive those moments of ‘helping’. But the receiver wants to run away from that moment of help. But he is eternally held by the invisible gaze of the giver. So he feels the perennial hurt.

(me and Murali Cheeroth, two out of the three)

But when you are a pilgrim on the road, with an unchartered land before you and some friends to give you a hand and a shade, you are not caught into the quotidian web of charity. However, when you are on the road, something holds you up, takes you on its wings, helps you to climb hills and crawls through caves of rebirth.

There the fields, tilled and prepared for the next sowing lay before you till the greenery frills it up to match up with the colour of the horizon and the crowding clouds. Muddy waters gurgles down to the lower planes, tickling the paddy blades sitting pretty stacked up for the touch of the farmers and their eternal release into the embrace of earth.

We three friends walk through the narrow pathways that divide one field from the other. We wonder at our own beings. Who has brought us here? We have not chartered our path. He said, we will just drive through the slanting sunlight. And the other friend just drove. We stood there in the middle of the field like three strange beggars while the wind dropped its coins of love on our open palms etched with the lines of deeds and misdeeds. Two water snakes flit through stream with a sense of purpose. One of them exchange a covert glance with me.

On the way, we see a pond. My friend stops the car. We get down. We sat at the steps that go into the pond. We push our tired and mud caked feet into the water. Between the fingers water flows and the dust of another land mixes with the water that has not gone anywhere. They exchange stories.

Slowly our feet feel the touch of a thousand lips. We look into the water. There hundreds of them; small fishes, the children of water. They eat dead cells, says my friend. If so I am just one big dead cell, eat me, I tell them.

They cover us up. First time I realized how mothers feel when they feed their infants. Hundreds of little fishes eat from our feet. My feet sprout into thousands of breasts. I feel the pleasure of being carried away to the worlds that I have never know before. I don’t even Bernini’s Ecstasy of St.Teresa. But I lean back in pleasure. My thousand kids feed on my feet.

We, the strange pilgrims say good bye to each other after climbing several hills and walking across several fields. At one point we hug each other and cry.

Pilgrims are strange people. They hug each other and cry.

(All the pictures are taken by Prasad in his Mobile phone camera)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Makers of Indian Contemporary Art 1- Story of Prasad in Trissur

(Prasad- A friend in need is a friend indeed)

Behind every successful man there is a woman, so say the maxims. Let me add, behind every successful man there is a woman and a few other women whom this woman hates.

Cynics amongst you might think that I am writing someone’s biography in a single line. You are free to read blurbs even when the book is yours.

Behind every successful artist there must be a few silent people. They remain silent because they want to see their friends flying high in their life and career. They remain silent also because their circumstances make them to be grounded. They are like banyan trees, rooted deep into the soil but send their branches and leaves to explore the world of infinity that expands itself in the vastness of sky. Those successful artists are the leaves and branches.

If you could define silence as that sublime gravity accumulated at the innards of all seven seas, Prasad has that silence in him. Let me introduce you to Prasad, an artist based in Trissur. One of the most silent persons with a faint smile on his lips, Prasad is a presence in the cultural scene of Trissur. He is a singer, an avid reader of literature and theories. And perhaps, he is one artist who could say, with a lot of conviction that he does not paint because he cannot cheat his own self.

You may wonder why someone says so, especially when Prasad is a friend of all those well established artists who live in Kerala and elsewhere. Before I venture further into the life and times of Prasad I would say that silent and observant people like Prasad are very rare but they are there in everyone’s life. You don’t call them ‘mentors’, you don’t call them ‘patrons’. You just call them ‘friends’ because you love them and you don’t with which measuring pan you could gage your love for them.

I call them the ‘makers’ of Indian contemporary art. Through self exclusion from the mainstream, they have opted for a life of ‘being there for you’. Their absence is not often ‘framed’ by the presences under arc lamps or sharpened spot lights. But their friends remember them with fondness and they feel that their tired wings could take rest on the branches of these huge banyan trees.

Prasad hails from Peringottukara, Trissur. He has always been interested in painting and drawing. His parents were government servants and their job took him to several places in the northern part of central Kerala and his schooling was mostly done in different schools. After pre-degree he joined Trissur Fine Arts College.

“We were very active kind of people. We were ready to do anything for a progressive culture. We offended the then government by showcasing a controversial street play on Jesus Christ. And all of us got arrested,” after much prodding Prasad opens up.

The activism of early 1980s was not just for the sake of activism. The students were led by the feeling of camaraderie. They all dreamt a common dream; a dream to a happy future where each one would teach one and one shall stand for all and all shall stand for one. “So we stayed most of the times in the campus though our homes were a few kilometers away from the college. When we did not go home for several days our mothers came in search of us. They did not understand why we spent our time inside college when we could comfortably stay at home and work. It was a different time,” Prasad says.

Prasad was a rebel from the very beginning. Today when you look at his face you don’t see those traces of rebellion, instead you see the deep calmness of a person who has understood life in its entirety. “Prasad came to college on a cycle which did not have any mud guards or bell or brake. As he was tall he could manage it without brakes,” remembers Murali Cheeroth, artist and close friend of Prasad from the college days. “And he use to leave that cycle anywhere in the small campus. If someone wanted it they could use it. But none except Prasad could handle that crazy two wheeler,” Murali laughs.

Any rebellion cannot be without a cause. “Mine was against students like T.V.Santhosh,, Murali Cheeroth and many others,” Prasad cuts in with a smile. “These guys came with those clothe bags and put a lot of air of intellectualism around them. So as a couple of years junior to them I thought of responding to their intellectual garbs in my own way. I started wearing a dhoti printed all ‘Narayana Narayana’ and I brought my books and other stuff in a cloth bag which was used for packing some spice.”

None could have avoided this young student’s daring and during the discussions and programs Prasad’s comments used to be quite acerbic and critical. “This used to throw us in a very tough situation,” T.V.Santhosh, artist and a very close friend of Prasad says. “Prasad was tall so he had an imposing presence. And his words were very slow but were sharp. And later to our shock we realized that it was this junior student who really managed funds for our ‘intellectual’ programs and discussions,” T.V.Santhosh smiles.

T.V.Santhosh and Prasad look like brothers. They speak in very low tones. To hear them one has to train his ears very close. Prasad’s ‘silent speak and silent singing’ has now become a contemporary folklore amongst his friends. Prasad sings well but he is one of the most reluctant singers in the world, one could say. Friends used to insist him to sing. So he would tune himself up. But this tuning would go on for quite some time till someone would pitch into say that enough of tuning, now some songs.

When Prasad sings something explodes in you. Prasad also believes in this explosion of emotions inside. “Sometimes something snaps inside me. My eyes well up. It happens when I listen to good music, listen to good friends and at times when people bless other people,” Prasad says.

Prasad was a crazy painter as his friends put it. He would take a big canvas and paint a small image in some corner. Then he would ask his friends, ‘how’s that’ not with the scream natural to the cricket bowlers but with the nod of a classical singer familiar to the accompanying Tabalist. Their communications happen in smiles and nods.

After education friends like Murali and Santhosh went to Santiniketan to pursue further studies. Prasad was in love. He was already doing photography and he wanted to learn more. So he went to Bangalore to do some course and find a part time job. “It was like getting up one fine morning and deciding to go,” says Prasad. Nothing was planned. Bangalore was not so kind to Prasad.

“Within a few days I was afflicted by cholera. Death lingered around me. Fifty bottles of glucose was dripped into me. Then my father came and took me back. It was some kind of a shattering experience,” remembers Prasad.

He does not attribute it to fate. But he cannot help wonder what prevented him from taking off again along with his friends. “I came back. I activated this printing, copying and advertising firm, Panorama in Trissur. It was one establishment that worked twenty four hours a day. I was there all the time. I introduced very sophisticated kind of screen printing. So I started getting offers from other states too. Money was coming in and going out.”

If you ask why Prasad did not paint even when he had financial freedom he would say that he did not have time to do painting as he was doing other works. And he does not regret it.

Because friends were pouring in. This 24 X 7 establishment was a adda of all the artists and cultural activists. Prasad became shelter and refuge for most of them. Theatre activists used to come in the middle of night after their performance and crash down on the floors of his office. Artists from all over Kerala who came to Trissur came with one assurance that the doors of Panorama would not be closed anytime. Prasad was a sort of ATM for many.

Prasad did not pick up his brush and canvas even during the boom years. Many were infatuated by the kind of materialistic success their friends were reaping in then. “Boom did not have any effect on me. Many of my friends became very rich and famous. But great thing happened to me was that I did not lose them. They all remain my friends and they all come to me first before they even go their own homes,” says Prasad.

Murali remembers how motivating Prasad has always been. “When we were struggling, we used to get letters from Prasad asking for the images of our works or our humble catalogues. This gave us a lot of energy. We thought a few people back home were at least waiting to see what we had been doing.”

Prasad is a traveler. He has traveled all those places where a normal tourist would not go when he is in Kerala. Prasad knows the small alleys and lanes of Kerala where there are small temples, churches, mosques, special kinds of plants. He knows about the festivals and the myths behind them. Perhaps, he compensates his life with these travels.

Still you could go back to your canvas, why not? I tell him. “No, painting and music are two things where you cannot tell lie, or at least I believe so. My paintings happen in my mind and I happy by seeing the works of all my friends.”

Prasad likes to travel early in the morning and come back to his home by evening. “Both times you travel between slanting sunlight. It is a dream scape through which you pass. I like to go through this dream all the times. It is the most fascinating thing about art.”

When you say good bye to Prasad, you take a away a bit of love from him and that explodes in your mind and your eyes too well up.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Small City Blues

(Picture for representational purpose only)

Music arrests me. It immobilizes me. It evokes a stream of emotions in me. And like many of you I am not a music scholar but just a lover.

Left alone in the middle of a city with familiar language and unfamiliar streets, I am led by a song sung in male voice. I am sure it is not coming from a record because the sound is different. Also I know that it does not come from a sophisticated synchronizing machine. It comes from somebody’s soul.

Across the street I see a Maruti omni van fitted with two stereo boxes. Night has already fallen in the streets of Trissur, Kerala. Work worn people amble back to homes and I could smell the fragrance of liquor in the air. Young girls in identical sarees walk past and I recognize them as sales girls who work in big malls and shops where they sell the items that they never ever would be able to buy or consume.

Buses parked along the shores of the streets and have dim lights inside and people look like silhouettes. They all look at this Maruti van from where the music comes. Standing in front of a fruit juice stall I look at the man who stands with a pair of crutches under his arm pits. He is the singer. He is wearing a white dhoti and a cherry red half sleeve shirt. While singing he shifts his body weight from one leg to the other.

He sings the old songs, nostalgic and full of pangs of lost love. He uses the karoke tracks for singing. A friend of his sits inside the car and handles a humble synchronizing machine. He is so adept in playing along the track and I could make out that he must have been a professional singer.

Next to him there is a small bucket, orange in color. Lit by the white neon light emanating from inside the car the bucket looks like a lamp shade. People walk with some kind of an inexplicable guilt and put some notes into it. Some tipplers gather before the singer and shake their head, obviously with a rhythm that does not sync with the rhythm of the song.

A sense of guilt engulfs me. I take out my purse and pulls out a ten rupees note. I cross the street and put the note in the bucket. I share the collective relief felt by all those people who are not disabled but could not sing.

He smiles at me. My grey moustache and beard, and my visible appearance of a stranger in the city might have made him feel sympathetic towards me. Or he might have sensed my feeling of discomfort. Or he must have been singing in streets like this and must be seeing people like me all the time.

He is Balakrishnan. His curly hairs and thick moustache show his bygone charm. I am sure he might have enthralled several people before the advent of music live programs in televisions. “I used to work with the Mangalam Orchastra’, he tells me as I strike up chat with him. I have heard about Mangalam Orchestra.

“I used to climb coconut trees also. One day I climbed a coconut tree in my house and I lost my grip and fell down,” he tells me as I ask him about the handicap. I purse my lips in shock. “I don’t want to sit at home. So I go to towns like this and sing,” Balakrishnan tells me.

I know it is not just about money. It is all about the applauses and appreciation. It is all about the invisible happiness that he used to impart to thousands of people in temple and church premises. Sitting alone at home would fill his ears with the roar of the audience. He wants it. He wants to feel it and live it.

Balakrishnan does not tell me all this. But his silent but very pearly smile conveys this to me secretly. I know how difficult to live in disgrace.

When Balakrishnan winds up his show with a professional announcement with the words full of gratitude and happiness, I walk away thinking that I could find my way back to the hotel.

For a new person Trissur Round is a maze. It will take you to nowhere. I had marked my way to the hotel. But after half an hour of walk I reach the same point where Balakrishnan was singing. Now he has gone. So were the tipplers and weary people.

So I call an autorickshaw and ask the driver to take me to my hotel. From the auto I could see the places that I had just passed while walking and like a magician the driver conjured up a left turn and it took me away from the maze like round.

From a distance I could see the hotel where I stay. It is so tall and all lit up. It must be a couple of kilometers away when I hear a priest giving a lecture to a few hundred strong audience and I ask the driver to stop the rickshaw. I get down there and go into the makeshift pandal where the religious treatment was going on.

The young priest is a good orator. He speaks like a motivational therapist. He asks the people whether anyone in the crowd was ready to go beyond what knowledge has given to them and be with Him, Jesus Christ. People raise their hands and say they want to. Then the young priest using his histrionic skills tells the audience that Jesus Christ was walking amongst them. He tells them that He was going to cure them.

Suddenly some people start convulsing. Some start shaking violently. And he declares that the clutches of Satan on them are now being removed by Jesus Christ. And he wants witnesses and approvers. People are called to the stage and they say that they have just felt Jesus Christ removing their back pain and neck pain.

A few young men wearing saffron lungis stand outside the pandal where I stand and chuckle. Inside people were getting relived of Satan.

I ask myself whether I felt Jesus Christ near me. I do not feel.

I walk into the darkness towards the hotel lit in lights.
I see destitute gods spreading their rags on the pavement for a dreamless sleep.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Different Gift for 2nd October

He sits alone in the corner of his small room. He feels like a caged animal. ‘A caged tiger,’ he thinks. Then he smiles.

I understand the meaning of that smile. I have been with him for a long time now. When people look at him through the wire meshed door he gives them a benevolent smile. These days he does not go anywhere. This place is enough for him; this place fills him with memories of Kasturba, Mira, Abha, Manu and many more soft presences.

He simply sits at his old residence in Sabarmati. Occasionally he touches his charkha but the moment he touches it he pulls his hands back as if he were touching a piece of ember. There a few paces away from this ashram at the Gujarat Vidya Peeth students and teachers still do the ritual of charkha.

“I don’t know,” he tells me. “I don’t know why they still do it. Look along this river Sabarmati. Both the banks have been taken over by the government. Now the river has got concrete frills. They tell me, the people could come and sit here in the evening, contemplate on the flowing water. Great idea, right,” he smiles at me again.

I too smile at him. “But Sabarmati is not Change Chan river in Korea,” he continues. Change Chan was pushed under the ground and later it was brought back and they made river front walks and gardens along the length of it. Here, river front development, I am sure is a hogwash. It is going to claim the riverbed for the corporate houses and rich ones.”

Old people will always sits on the places kindly allotted to them by the people who have power and health on their side. So all these benches along the streets of Gujarat. Old people sit there and watch the setting sun and in their sagging flesh they carry memories like termites.

I remind him of Narendra Modi’s fasting. He smiles again. “It is always good if somebody fasts. But not those people who go to bed without food every day without an end. Fasting is meant for those who eat every day, three times. I fasted because I could afford to fast. I wanted to kick at the conscience of those who could eat and I could call out to those who did not find anything to eat at all. So it worked. Now it seems to have become a fashion.”

But what about Narendra Modi’s refusal to accept a prayer cap by a Muslim? He smiles again. “Oh..I thought I saw that in television. See now I have a mobile phone too,” he fishes out one and shows it to me. “I listen to FM Radio in it whenever I am sleepless. You know, after nine o clock at night they play good old songs without commercial breaks. I enjoy those songs.” He seems to be in a different mood so I prod on.

“Political farce; a kind of role playing. It all started by my beloved Nehru. He traveled all over. Danced and wore people’s outfit. Unfortunately he was just wearing it on his body, not on his mind. Today everyone does it. But then when someone puts the real symbol on you, you get frightened.”

They say these roads, this prosperity and so on have consolidated his space here. And he is tipped to be the next prime minister, I ask him. He again smiles.

“Roads. I am an old man. I don’t want roads. Young people want roads. Old people’s road ends in cemeteries. I heard a story yesterday. Someone came asking for Kabir. Someone said, go to cremation grounds. If someone is still talking philosophy after coming out of the gates of the place, he is Kabir. Old people are Kabirs. They just want sunsets and breeze.”

And what about the young people and their aspirations?

“I told you no?” he looks at his watch. “ ..this too has become a habit. I am not going anywhere. Still I look at this watch. Yes, young people need roads. But look at these cities in this state. None cares the other. Death rides on two wheelers and four wheelers. Villages are divided by eight line highways. So they cross the roads from wrong directions and get killed. Death is an unrecorded entity when it comes to the graph of progress.”

He gets up. Like Haroun Al Rashid, he too uses disguise to venture out. He does not fear a mobbing that had been quite used to. But these days he does not want to be identified on the road.

“The other day you asked me about these disguises. I hate to wear too many clothes. But this shepherd’s one suits me best. I like it. If I go out in my loin clothes they would recognize me. They would show me reverence; a kind of reverence and awe that you show if you see a museum item on the road. I have seen people like me behaving like me, even dressing up like me. I tend to tell them, don’t. But then I think that I should keep quite.”

I eat a plate of mutton kebab while he sits next to me, clutching on his walking stick. The dingy narrow alley reeks in the aroma of spices and burning animal flesh. The muslim men in the shops seem to be familiar with his presence. “Baba…kem cho?” someone calls out.

“Maja ma,” he replies with a smile. “I am good. I am always good,” he mutters to himself.

Doesn’t he feel the perennial disgust in this alley where people eat meat? “No no no…I have overcome that also,” he tells me. “I don’t eat. But I don’t have any problem if others eat. It is Karma. If I believe in Gita, I should not be fanatic the way I used to be.”

Tomorrow is your birthday, I tell him. “I want to gift you something, Bapu. What would you like to have from me?” I ask.

He looks at me. He pats my back. I feel his touch.

“Take me to the NID campus,” he tells me.

I raise my eyebrows as if those were meant to be two huge questions.

“Yes, I want to see garba; the dance of abundance and pleasure. The dance of love. I love to see young people showing the true spirit of love through graceful movements. Garba is a way of praying to the nature and its bounty. I want to forget myself and float in the rhythm of those moving bodies. Take me..”

I hold his hands. We walk. And in a distance, through the thicket of bamboos we could hear the drums inviting the young and the beautiful to the ground.