(with my daughter Kartyayani MJ. Pic by Mrinal Kulkarni)
There were several moments of frustration in my life. When I was not able to tolerate the pain of those moments, I thought of quitting the profession that I had chosen; profession of an art critic. Actually, when some public debate happens people accuse me of being a ‘self styled’ art critic. In fact, if you are not an ‘official’ critic for any newspaper or magazine or journal or television channel, then even if you are a qualified critic (means someone with a post graduation in art history and criticism) and a practicing one too, you are a ‘self styled’ art critic. So there is a grain of truth in that accusation. When you practice art criticism independently, you are a self styled art critic. No university can make you an art critic. You need to practice, diligently, patiently and you should be ready to make enemies. If you want to be in everyone’s good book, then criticism cannot be your chosen profession. There is a wide chasm between soothsaying and art criticism.
I have never been in anybody’s good book. But whoever comes close to me goes back with some fond memories about my work. It is not a self attestation of my own conduct and demeanour. One of my friends who is a gallerist in Delhi, always tells me that after working with me in a couple of project, he finds it difficult to work with anybody else. I consider it as great compliment. When I was curating a show for one of the main galleries in Mumbai, the owner of the gallery walked up to me and said, “Now I understand all what I had heard about you were just unfounded allegations. It is a pleasure working with you.” I smiled at him. This is the fate of an art critic who does not mince his words. If you want to make an enemy out of your close friend, just be frank and tell that his or her work sucks. I had faced it several times. Once I wrote in Indian Express that some artist’s installations were like cats. Those who could not afford to have a tiger could keep a cat as a pet. The artist was infuriated. She told someone that she would see me out of Delhi. But I have been here now for almost two decades. Whenever some people threaten me with dire consequences (often it is like, we will see how you will curate shows) I just laugh at them because they have not given me any chair to sit. How could they take away a position that has not been given to me by them?
This attitude does not mean that I am always like a superman or super fighter devoid of human emotions. I remember this funny incident: I used to work out in gym quite regularly and was keeping a good physique during the boom years. Though boom years did not last more than four years, most of the people used to think that market boom was going to be there eternally. To live in such eternal heaven, most of them thought that they needed good physique. To build a good physique out of the erstwhile starving bodies was a difficult job. And most of them were in their late thirties or early forties thanks to the late arrival of the market boom. So it was almost like restructuring and old building for contemporary needs. As a part of it and also after becoming too much health conscious, many used to go to the high end hospitals to have a complete body check up (actually many of them needed complete mental check up but these hospitals were not offering such facilities). Once they went through several tests they realized that their bodies were a living museum of exotic diseases that haunted the rich people. They were not unhappy because they knew that everything came with a price tag. As a result of this most of them had hit gyms during those years.
(Malayalam star Late Jayan)
My exercise regime however did not have much to do with market boom. I was into regular gymming ever since I realized that body was a medium not only to live my soul out but also to do many other things. Like many other boys growing up in eighties, I too worshipped well bodied actors like Jayan and Kamal Haasan. Even after settling in Delhi I have been doing regular physical exercises. But I should accept that I too had faced a sort of peer pressure during the boom years. When I knew many of my friends drove a few kilometres to go to the best gyms in the city or even drove to high end gardens to do jogging or morning walk, I too got carried away. Though I did not drive to gyms or public parks, I put an extra oomph to my gym routine and worked out well for a toned body. Now the difference was that thanks to some of my friends who thought I had a terrible dressing sense gifted me with tight fitting designer shirts. Chintan Upadhyaya, Somu Desai and Murali Cheeroth quite regularly presented me with shirts.
One day when I was in an exhibition opening in Mumbai, now with a tight shirt unable to hold my pumped up biceps, a large glass of beer in hand and flowing curly locks, the gallerist who had invited me to attend the do could not resist herself. She walked up to me and asked whether I did regular gymming. When I confirmed that she asked me a question that had shocked and amused me at the same time. She asked whether I ever read any books. I did not know what to say. I knew that she came to a conclusion that I spent most of my time in gym, pumping iron very hard. That was quite a shocker for me and I realized that it is obviously permissible for an artist to have a good physique but not a critic. A critic should be wearing bad clothes, he should hang a cloth or jute bag across his shoulders, should have emaciated looks complete with an unkempt beard. That’s why Manjunath Kamath, an artist friend of mine once famously said, “Art critics are like local priests (pundits). Even if he has a BMW, he would be appreciated only if he comes by a cycle.”
What I want to say is this much: however cool you pretend you are, however you project yourself as a fighter, there are some weak moments. Or should I call these moments, the true moments, when you really feel what you are and what you should be. I used to feel these ‘true moments’ once in a while. Often it happened during March and April. Though I had left Kerala two decades back, my body clock still responds to the seasonal changes back home. In Kerala, March is the month of examinations. Also it heralds the beginning of summer, whereas in Delhi March is the end of winter often heralded by the celebration of Holi. Back home, as a young boy I disliked the month of March because of examinations and also hated it because it filled in you a sense of vacuum. After the examinations, the long summer vacation came. Though I knew that I could spend endless hours playing with mates or with the visiting cousins, there was always a zone of loneliness and void where I used to push myself into. As I grew up, some vague feelings started coming to fill up that void. I did not know how to explain those feelings. Nor did I know how to tackle them. I wanted to run away from that feeling. This feeling of nowhere persisted for a few weeks and faded away. And in Delhi I knew it was coming back to me.
During the months of March and April, I often did my soul searching activities. Where I used to feel the void once now started filling up with negative thoughts. I remembered all those people who had done injustice to me. All those occasions when I was rendered useless or I felt humiliated rushed back to me during those months. I used to fall in severe depression and many times I thought of quitting it and going elsewhere to seek a different life. However, there have always been some people who appear in my life during those moments of frustration. Like the messengers of God, they come in your life without burdening you with the feeling that they are there to save you. They just remain there with you like the friends often do. In this chapter I would like to talk about those people who came to save me from untimely peril and depression. Some of them were artists and some were not. When I faltered they extended their hands, I held those hands and walked further. Some of them said good bye at some point and some of them remained with me throughout. I am sure I would be walking with many in the coming days too.
“Keep digging at the same place till you find water. A well cannot be made out of small pits dug here and there. You need to dig consistently and persistently at the same place for long,” K.S.Radhakrishnan smiled at me through his long beard. When he smiles, behind the specs one could see the sides of eyes crinkling, imparting some sort of impishness to his smile. Radhakrishnan likes imps. He has made his protagonist Musui to enact several impish acts. Growing up in Kuzhimattam, a village near Kottayam, Radhakrishnan had acquired several stories of imps and the spirits that moved huge trees and stones over night. Each village person contained an imp in him. They manifested when they were expected to. Their lives and their stories had enriched the childhood of Radhakrishnan. He knew that when nothing happens, something or somebody will come to you from nowhere. “So, keep digging till you find water.” He told me this when I was telling him that I wanted to quit sometime in 2005.
Radhakrishnan’s words were like a spell that could bind me to the ground, where I had been digging randomly. I thought it was a great piece of advice. He was there always to guide me whenever he and myself thought I was going wrong. But he never advised me or anyone in the conventional sense; like giving a prolonged lecture or something. He just brought certain situations and probed whether I could do something towards it. When I tried to find a solution to that situation, slowly I realized that I too was in the same situation and it was time for me to find a way out of it. In 2005, I was frustrated like hell and I wanted to become a full time journalist, saying good bye to art criticism forever. It was then Radhakrishnan told me about how one dug a well. The story clicked and once again I plunged myself into the unchartered land of self styled art criticism.
In front of the huge studio in Chattarpur, which Radhakrishnan built in 1992, there used to be a white Ambassador car. I used to be a regular visitor in the studio (from where I work these days) and there was a gap of a year or so once I came back from London. Even after I resumed my regular visits to the studio, I never felt the absence of that white Ambassador there. But one day something happened and like a lightning the absence of it struck me. I immediately walked into the studio and asked where the car had gone. Radhakrishnan smiled at me and said, “It is still there.” “It is not seen there? Did you sell it?” I asked him with some sense of urgency. I knew that he had not been using that car for quite some time. He did not want to sell it because it was his ‘first’ car in Delhi. But Radhakrishnan insisted that it was there. Then he got up from his chair and walked out with me. He stood where the Ambassador car was parked once. He looked into my eyes and said, “I just buried him here.” I went closer to Radhakrishnan. Now both of us were standing over the grave of his Ambassador car. “I did not want him rust and decay in front of my eyes. So I gave him a decent burial.” I could understand what Radhakrishnan was telling. I could feel the soul of that car hovering around us. A white winged Ambassador car.
It was in this Ambassador that Radhakrishnan had come to meet us first. He came to pick Mrinal and me up from the Lalit Kala Akademy. He took us to a restaurant somewhere in Chanakyapuri and brought us a good lunch. Then he drove us to the Kirkee Village where he had his first studio. That time Radhakrishnan had just finished his huge sculpture for client. It was called ‘Song of the Road’ (Pather Panchali). The sculpture was installed on the top of a building in Sheik Sarai. It showed Musui pulling a rickshaw at which a crow was seen perched. A forwarding running Musui showed the future progress, the milieu that was refusing to change was represented by the rickshaw and the crow perched on it suggested time and death. That was the first time I saw a sculpture by Radhakrishnan. That was the first encounter with him. Even today that relationship continues stronger than ever. Radhakrishan does everything with a sense of flourish. And like a magician he conjures up things in front of you, which in fact he has been painstakingly planning and executing for days and months. Each time I sit with him, I learn something new in life. And one of the greatest lessons that I learned from him is this: never borrow money from a friend. He told me this not because that I should not ask when I needed but because the warning would make me work for situation that would never make me ask for money from anybody. I keep that word till now.
As we were a regular fix in Rabindra Bhavan buildings we never used to miss any happenings in and around it. We watched most of the theatre activities at the National School of Drama, music and dance festivals conducted by the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the literary seminar conducted by the Sahitya Akademi. One day, while I was hanging out with a group of friends in the first floor lobby of Rabindra Bhavan, after attending some lectures in a Literature seminar, I met one person who just came forward to shake hands with me. His name was Vijayalal. He knew me as a writer in the Malayalam Weekly. He was very happy to meet me and I too was happy to meet one of my readers. As our conversation progressed, I came to know that Vijayalal worked at the Kerala House as an official and he had shift duties. Whenever he had night shifts, he spent his day time in the Sahitya Akademi library. He lived with his wife in the Kapurthala Plot, a few meters away from Rabindra Bhavan.
(With French cultural attache Theirrie)
That was the beginning of a friendship. Initially I thought Vijayalal was many years younger to me as he looked quite young. But soon I realized that he was a few years senior to me. Once we became friends it was difficult for us not to meet even for a day. We met quite regularly and one day he told me that he was working on a book. This news was quite a revelation because I never thought that Vijayalal wanted to be a writer. He was a good reader. But he explained the situation to me. A few years before he met me, he had had a vision. He saw something he had never seen. It was absolutely abstract but he felt a need to express what he had seen and felt. Since then he had been trying to put that vision into words. One day Vijayalal invited me to his home. His wife Neena, a wonderful person, cooked a wonderful meal for us. She also was my reader and as the daughter of a writer father (Kalavangodam Balakrishnan) she was very happy to have me as her close friend.
Vijayalal read out the lines that he had been writing. It sounded like the verses from Gitanjali but it was different. It was intimately personal and very intense. Language was failing here and there and he was facing difficulty in finding the right words. While reading Vijayalal was going through the same experience and whenever he failed to express it through the words he writhed in pain. Neena and I listened to his recitation silently. Finally, I asked him whether I could help him in editing it and rewriting a bit. Soon it became a regular practice for us to read, re-read and recite the manuscript. It went on for months. As time passed Mrinal and Neena became good friends. We spent a lot of time together with Vijayalal and family. Whenever I reached Kerala House, where he worked, he always bought lunch for me from the canteen there. In Delhi, Vijayalal’s house became our second home. Finally, the book ‘Satyameva Jayate’ (Let Truth Win) got published by the famous DC Books in Kerala. We were really happy. Vijayalal and Neena were two people in Delhi who helped me to come out of my depressions several times.
Devanand came to my life from a totally different scene; television and films. He was living in Mayur Vihar Phase III with his wife and two sons. We too were in Mayur Vihar Phase III. We met each other through a common friend and something clicked between us. Devanand is a very soft spoken with tremendous business acumen. When we met, he was the head of Laxmi Studios in NOIDA. One day he took me to his studio, showed the shootings in progress and asked me whether we could do some programs together for the Malayalam channels. Those days there were only two Malayalam Channels; Asianet and Soorya. They were not commissioning too many programs from outside. However, Devanand felt that we should try and create some interesting programs for television. We worked for endless hours devising scripts for family oriented games and entertainment programs. It was Devanand who introduced me to several family games, an interface of entertainment and commodity marketing. I did a lot of scripts for Devanand but nothing was made into a program. Then Devanand’s attention went to making films as he started working as an executive producer. I did a few scripts for him. And Anand Kumar of Delhi Heights and Zila Gaziabad fame was our friend and we had several script discussions at that time as Anand Kumar was trying desperately to become a director, which he finally became. It was through Devanand I met Sarath, the director and I did the script of ‘Desire’ for him. I wrote the script based on Protima Bedi’s life and finally Shilpa Shetty acted the lead role.
When I talk about my film scripts, I should add that I do not have any formal training in writing scripts. However, whenever Devanand told me that I could write one, I felt that I could do that. After meeting Sarath, as per his request I wrote two scripts for him. One was submitted for a competition conducted by the Swedish Film Akademy in 2008 and it was selected as one of the ten good scripts from all over the world. But it could not gain funding though it had a translational theme running between India and Japan. The second script was about the Sri Lankan Tamils living in a place called Punaloor in Kerala. During the Indo-Sri Lankan peace negotiations, a lot of Sri Lankan Tamilians were given shelter in Kerala and since then they have been leading a pathetic and obscure life near some forest land. Sarath got interested in their lives and he asked me to do a script for a movie. I did some basic script work and as the subject demanded a lot of research and as Sarath could not find a sponsor to send me to Sri Lanka for further research, the project was shelved. I started doing the script for the movie ‘Desire’ almost at the same time and successfully finished it within the stipulated time. However, thanks to the Bollywood politics, my name in the movie is credited as story writer. The credit of script writing goes to someone who has translated it from English to Hindi, and also is a member of a registered script writers’ association. Whenever I felt down in the dumps Devanand came up with some crazy ideas so that I could get involved in writing it down in the form of a script. It was my association with him gave me enough confidence to do three documentaries on artists namely Jeram Patel, N.N.Rimzon and Sanjeev Sinha.
(Sarath, film director)
The years 2004-05 were important in many ways. In these two years I made several decisions; first of all to leave art scene and secondly to become a full time journalist though my mind was not there. I did not choose to become a teacher. I wonder why I did not think in those lines. Perhaps I had too much of teaching experience since my boyhood days. Joining Malayala Manoram was the important event happened during this time. The salary was not enough to meet the expenses. And the job was not satisfying at all. My days spent in covering local Malayali communities, celebrities from these areas, local Malayali politics and culture. I still maintain my opinion that many of those people whom I had covered or had been asked to cover by the editor, would have never become a leader or a cultural activist had they been in Kerala. The less talented or half talented always got a chance to prove themselves when they were leading a migrants’ life. It is amongst the migrant communities that you see a special desire for sharing or acquiring a chunk of the culture that they had left behind in their home lands.
It was then I met George. I call him Kappa George. Kappa in Malayalam means Tapioca, a favourite tuber food of Malayalis. George runs a car workshop in NOIDA. He earned quite a lot of money by doing this work. Once he got his foothold in the North India, he started taking agricultural land on lease somewhere near NOIDA and started cultivating many things. Rice and Tapioca was the main crops other than the seasonal vegetables. I first met George when I went to cover his achievement as a Tapioca producer. In our first meeting itself I realized that George was a very simple man with a love of concern for the migrant people. He was a member of an organization called ‘Human Rights Society’. This organization worked for helping people to get pension and so on. He made me also a member of the society. George liked drinking and he invited me to the clubs he visited. I don’t know whether he was a great influence in my life or not. But I could say that he was a solace whenever wanted to vent my suppressed emotions. He was a patient listener and a good narrator of events. We synched well for almost two years. But once I left Manorama the chances or our meeting became less. However, we exchange pleasantries once in a while over phone calls.
Another important person was Swami Samvidanand. Like in many people’s life, Samvidanand just happened in my life. He was a very lean thin young boy whose early life history was totally unknown to anyone. He had taken sanyaas from some Ashram in Haridwar and was associated with one of the ashrams as a priest. One day he decided to come to Delhi. He was an avdhoota with an interest in literature. We met or he happened in my life in one of the literary meetings at the Kerala Club in Connaught Place. When I left Kerala Club, he came with me to the Manorama office at the INS Building. Then it became a routine. He came in the evening. We walked along the streets discussing literature. He recited his poems for me. I called him Swami. Everyone called him Swamy. He was a very special swamy that he could gel with anybody, irrespective of gender, caste, religion or food habits. Even if you were eating beef, he could sit there without batting an eyelid or showing displeasure. In fact swamy could even come with me to buy beef from the beef stalls near NOIDA. Also he could engage with the drunken people in an evening party without touching a drop of liquor. He had several qualities as a human being.
Swamy was very close to me and in turn he became close to everyone I was close to. At some point he even stayed with us for almost a month. He was soft spoken and had an interest in anything and everything. He wrote poems and even wrote reports for magazines. In the meanwhile even got a CD of his poems cut in one of the recording studios in Kochi. He was a darling of everyone in Delhi. He could walk into anybody’s house and demand food and shelter. With him I too had gone to many houses and became an acquaintance of people whom otherwise I would have never met or talked in my life. Then finally one day Swamy disappeared. People said this and that. People came to me asking for him. I did not have any clue. Whatever I heard of him was not good and I was very sad. Finally I heard that he was in Mumbai and even heard that he was visiting the artists in their studios located in Borivili. I have only fond memories about Swamy. I wish him all the best wherever he is now.
Before I conclude I need to talk about one more person who made my life worth living at a point when I was thinking totally negative about myself. This had something to do with my gender as a male. I was thirty three when I went to London for my studies. As I mentioned in one of the previous chapters, most of the fellow students were girls. I was married and was senior to most of them by several years. I never could show any kind of romantic affection to any of them. When I came back to Delhi, I did not find anyone welcoming me other than Mrinal. It had hurt my male ego. The thought that I was no longer desirable for any other woman made me think totally negative about my personality and life. I pushed myself into a sort o cocoon of self denial. Then suddenly Smitha Vijay happened in my life.
I met her at a restaurant in Park Hotel, New Delhi. I was there to report an audio launch event by a then emerging singer named K.K. A young girl was there at the bar waiting for the singer to emerge from somewhere. Most of the reporters were from television channels and were glamorous by their profession and personality. I was hiding myself within me perhaps and was standing like a shadow near the bar. This girl looked at me and smiled. I gave her a feeble smile and we got into some kind of chatting. She told me that she was a Delhi born and brought up Malayali. Also she mentioned that her marriage had been fixed to a Punjabi boy. Then she laughed. And soon we became very close friends. She was working with the Hindustan Times and once in a while I went to meet her. Whenever she came down from her office to meet me, she took me to a nearby cafe and treated me with coffee and bites. Always she paid. I never had enough money to pay. But she never made me feel so. I liked her very much because she treated me like a human being. I still like her a lot and she too likes me a lot.
This chapter would bring an end to these narratives. When I started this series almost a year back, I did not have any clue that it would run to thirty chapters. In fact I did not have any plan about writing this series. Writing led me all along. The logic of narration evolved instantly. I just needed to type the first line, the rest happened. I never paused for ideas or the style of narrative. It was always there in me. Now, if at all I write a second part to it, it would be different in complexion because I no longer want to address my kids. They will be growing up seeing me living my life the way I want. Whatever I narrated so far has been the story of my life that I had led in ways that mostly differed from my innate desire to have it differently. I was the victim of my own thinking and a time that made me think so. But I don’t have any regrets.