Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Thiruvannamalai Journey Continues: Circling the Mountain of Sketches

(Shibu Sketching in Karnataka)

Shibu Natesan does not go anywhere without his sketching pad and camera. His favourite vehicle, Maruti Gypsy is well equipped with drawing and sketching materials along with a large umbrella that we generally see in the vicinity of cafes, cool bars or beaches, an easel and a camera kit. He likes to do outdoor paintings capturing the mood and feel of the places and people he witnesses during his innumerable journeys all over India by his vehicle. As an artist who has established his career as a studio painter, modelling his paintings based on photographic references along with mental images, switching over to landscape paintings done on locations has come to him quite naturally. Taking inspiration from the unknown masters both from the occidental and oriental art history, who had done live paintings in the outdoors, Shibu prefers to travel all over the world, sketching and drawing people and places. It is a great way of knowing your land and its people, opines Shibu. And also it is one way of understanding the works of masters who had done works in the similar vein. When you are out there, sketching and painting ‘live’, you come to understand that the masters were not exaggerating a bit. Shibu cites the example of the famous mountain painting that Paul Cezanne had done in late 19th century which in fact became the inspirational work and theoretical anchor for many an impressionists of that time. There is no bit of exaggeration in Cezanne’s works, says Shibu while walking at the foot of Mount Arunachala in Thiruvannamalai. Cezanne could not have done it in any other way. He saw the colours and forms in the mountain from that perspective and it was a realistic painting though we do not acknowledge it as a realistic painting. Shibu’s realism has moved from his ‘photographic realism’ to the time tested realism of the great masters in art history. According to me, Shibu is a contemporary master who breaths and lives art. He sleeps and dreams art and whatever he does in his life is nothing other than art.

Earlier too I have seen Shibu doing live sketches of people and places. I have had this great opportunity to be his live model at times. In his typical comic vein, Shibu makes few final strokes in the sketches that he makes out of me and gives them a caricature edge; often it is an exaggerated nose or a receding hairline, which he knows would make me angry on the one hand and the pictures funny on the other. All these while, he has been waiting for me to turn a bald man so that his caricature predictions could have come true. But as they say it is providence that I have not yet turned a bald man nor has my nose blown completely out of proportion so that I would look funny. However, Shibu has done a couple of interesting portraits of mine in oil on canvas when both of us were teenagers. As I have mentioned in some of my earlier writings, we used to imagine ourselves as Vangogh and Theo, as a result of the addiction that we had for western art history and myths, we used to exchange handwritten letters every week (as there were no phones and internet) and most often we tried to make the content of these mails as close to the mails written by Vangogh and Theo both in tone and feeling. We had contemplated helping each other the way Vangogh and Theo used to do. We also had contemplated visiting sex workers and falling in love with them though in our given circumstances such tasks were far too difficult to accomplish. At some point at least one of us had thought of cutting off the ear lobe and presented it to our female interests so that we could express our intense love for those women.

Those painful but romantic attempts were not too materialized as we could not find such bold and beautiful women in our surroundings. What we could do was just to write about our aspirations in our correspondences and to feel somewhat at par with the people from books. However, the portraits of mine that Shibu had done were really impressive. In one of the portraits you could see me sitting with somewhat a drawn face. My thick mop of hair, dark and dense eyebrows, an early moustache and a sparse beard are starkly painted against a deep olive green background. What makes the portrait distinct is its capturing of the wavy design of the blue and white shirt that I am wearing, in thick impasto strokes and the flow of it almost resonates in every other stroke in the painting. Almost at the same time, Shibu had done a few portraits of Madhu and Manu, two friends in the same fashion. The second portrait of mine is much light in colour and feel. A yellowish orange dominates the background and my face is seen half from the left side of the vertical frame as if I were entering into the frame from some other space. I am seen clean shaven here and my eyes are quite expressive. Instead of using impasto, Shibu uses very thin layers of colour to make the portrait as flat as possible but without losing the feel of the energetic looks of a young man who is being portrayed.

I repeat the words of Shibu: Sketching people is one of the best ways to communicate with them. I too believe in this and feel that it is more effective than interviewing unknown people. When you interview a person, and especially when he comes to know that you are a writer or are from the press, he is ready to open up. He tells you everything that he wants to tell you; sometimes the interviewees do tell you more than what you need. And for writers the unrequested areas of narrations are the communicative moments that provide rich and potent materials for writings that move beyond the journalistic requirements or limitations. But the people are always curious about the outcome of the interviews. If it is a television interview for sound bites that would excite the viewers, the interviewees will come to know the result once it is telecasted. But in the case of a verbal interview, they are unsure of the results. They do not know what could be the outcome of their words, lamentations or exhortations. They do not know what the writer would do with their words. But they find the writers as their own mediums to populate the world with their sorrows and joy. But live painting or sketching is a different ball game altogether. This is the same case with photography, especially when pictures are clicked with the consent of the sitter. When an artist opens his sketch pad and sits to sketch something or someone, an instant connect with the place or person is created. An artist who sketches a place or people is not a threat at all. People just grow curious and soon they grow fond of the artist. They just want to know what this artist is doing and the main question is whether he/she is able to capture the ‘likeness’ of the sitter. If he is not able to capture it, at least is he able to capture the feel of it? The sketches may not have the photographic feel of people or places. But they could capture something that is latent in a person’s face or body or in general appearance that is not seen often but is captured by an artist while sketching. People are happy even if they see a failed sketch because they know here amongst them there is a person who has come to sketch them and he ‘could’ create them. People look at artists who go to them and make their pictures as gods. They are demigods who could ‘create’ a person or place through a few lines. But do we have such artists these days who take all the pain to travel and paint, meet people, absolute strangers and make their pictures? Such artists are a rare breed these days.

In Thiruvannamalai, Shibu shows me the power of drawing and sketching; the power of artistic creations to capture the people’s attention, love and respect. On the second day, we decide to go for Girivalam again. Thinking of previous day’s long walk I try to negotiate with my own legs. Unwilling they are yet I coax them to walk today too with a promise that I would buy a pair of light chappals for them. Shibu takes his sketch pad and drawing materials in his shoulder bag. I had thought of carrying a note pad and pen so that I could speak to people and take notes. Somehow I feel averse to that idea because I feel that the act of interviewing people purposefully will be seen as a sort of ‘project’ which would mar all the possibilities of connecting with people effectively and at times silently. As such I do not have any plan to write a book about the people in Thiruvannamalai and I have this gift of remembering things that people say or the gestures they make. I can register them in my mind and I decide to be a silent spectator to Shibu’s sketching expedition than to become a ‘reporter’ of the events during the day. We start our walking from Arthur Osborne’s house and hit the same path in front of Ramana Ashram. First we think of going inside the Ashram but immediately change the plan and continue walking along the road. As we see the same tea shop where we saw Gayatri Gamuz, the painter on the previous day, we decide to have a cup of tea and then proceed.  We settle down on the wooden benches and order for two cups of tea; both light without, means, not so strong and without sugar.

Shibu takes out his sketching pad. He looks at the people around and finally he settles on a person’s face and he looks almost willing to sit still till Shibu finished his sketching. Shibu starts his work. The first line that runs across the off white sheet of his sketching pad does not reveal much to the things to come in there. Looking at his sitter, I imagine that it could be his nose but suddenly it turns out to be his neck; no it is not even neck, is his shoulder? Now, I see, it is not just me who is sharing this curiosity and enthusiasm to know what would come out of this sketching attempt of this artist. A dancer has to dance and prove that he is a dancer, a singer has to sing, a writer has to write, but for a visual artist the moment he start sketching, nobody needs to tell others that he is an artist. People, like the fishes learn swimming, understand an artist when he/she is at his sketching pad. They just grow curious and gather around. For a moment I see that particular tea shop where we are now an oasis in the middle of a nowhere. It looks like a beautiful island seen in the middle of a sun glazed sea. People there stand still. The tea stall vendor stops making tea. His wife who works as a help in the stall drops all what he has been doing and comes to see the artist working. There is a silence looming large around the stall. I find it quite interesting. Suddenly, I feel like smoking a cigarette and I walk through the people who are frozen in the middle of their activities and reach the counter and ask for a cigarette. The man who runs the tea stall does not even look at me. I tap at the lid of a plastic bottle in which some locally baked biscuits are kept. The man looks at me and he turns his gaze back to Shibu Natesan. Cigarette please, I demand. But he looks at me once again and whispers, the artist is at work. “He is an artist,” exclaims the dark complexioned beautiful wife of the tea shop man. Shibu finishes his sketching and looks at the man before him. Then he looks at his sketch once again. A smile comes to Shibu’s lips. He turns the sketchpad and shows it to the sitter. His face beams with happiness. He does not even ask for the sketch. He finds it blasphemous to ask for that sketch. The man takes that one last look at his own image captured by Shibu in his sketchbook and leaves. Shibu packs up his things and we continue our walking.

(Sketches from Adi Annamalai)

At Adi Annamalai, once again we settled down for a cup of tea at a familiar tea shop. Shibu has visited the place in his previous visits too. Though the boiler and tea making equipments are kept towards the roadside edge of the shop, the inner walls of the tea shop has a few paintings hanging on the wall. Upon our enquire we come to know that the son of the tea stall owner is a painter and he makes the portraits of visiting foreigners, Ramana Maharshi and paints the scenic beauty of the Arunachala mountain, all on demand. He seems to be a confident painter though his works do not show too much of painterly skills. He earns a decent living by selling his paintings and when he is not at his easel he works as a tea maker in his father’s tea stall. This boy, whose name I have forgotten now is not seen at the shop always. When his father is not at the shop, his younger brother takes charge and this younger one seems to have a lot of friends in the area. This jovial young man greets us and immediately he strikes up a conversation with us. Looking at Shibu he recognizes him as an artist and proudly tells us that his brother is also an artist. After two rounds of tea, Shibu warms up once again and takes out his sketchpad. He asks this young happy man whether he could sit for a portrait and he is more than willing. Soon Shibu starts sketching him and people gather around. It is an action replay of the same scene that we have just seen at the other tea shop. People gather around Shibu as I click pictures of the sitter, Shibu , sitter and Shibu, and sitter, Shibu and the people around respectively. Once the portrait is finished, there is a sigh of relief on the faces of the people who have been witnessing it as if it were an exciting race. The finishing point has now been crossed and the cheering crowd has appreciated the skill of the artist. They not only congratulate the artist but also congratulate the sitter for providing Shibu such a fantastic model. This young man is very much sure about his own looks and his own worth as a local hero. So he takes a look at the picture and considers it for a few minutes and finally he also approves Shibu’s artistic skills. His glances back into the shop in an attempt to make a quick comparison between Shibu’s skills and his own brother’s artistic prowess.

Gunbendran is a tall and thin guy with a rough but not so full beard. His haircut is not stylish but even in its rusticity there is some kind of elegance. His features are sharp and his eyes have a special spark in it. His white dhoti reaches just above his ankles and he wears a plain white shirt with folded sleeves up to his elbow. He walks towards us and smiles. He introduces himself to us as ‘Kuberan’. Kuberan is the Lord of Riches and it is good to see one here, I tell him. He smiles again and says that he does not live there in Adi Annamalai. But he makes regular visits here whenever his artist friend in the tea shops extends an invitation to him. Are you an artist, I ask him. Like a story teller who wants to hide the real nature of some of his characters for some time, Kuberan tells us that he is not only an artist but also an artist who is academically trained. He lives in Pondicherry and his artist friends often visit him there. He looks at Shibu’s portrait of the young jovial man in the tea shop and gives and appreciative nod. He talks a little bit about the lines and the volume that Shibu has created out of simple lines. It is wonderful, says Kuberan. He does not seem to be revealing his real self and takes immense pleasure in holding things about him back. He asks Shibu about his education. Shibu tells him about Trivandrum and Bardoa. Like any other artist who wants to create a temporary myth around him or her, Shibu too indulges in creating myths. He does not reveal the fact that he had studied in Amsterdam and now lives in London. He says that he lives in a small town in Kerala. Kuberan, gaining confidence by now switches to English from a conversation that is filled with broken Tamil and broken Hindi.

(Shibu sketch from Karnataka)

Kuberan is also a trained artist. He proudly tells that he has studied at Chitra Kala Parishad in Bangalore. This time we are really surprised. I have two reasons for my surprise. A person who has studied in Chitra Kala Parishad and passed out recently does not seem to have even heard of the names Shibu Natesan and JohnyML. It is not arrogance. Those people who are involved deeply in Indian art cannot go without hearing our names once. If they do not have any clue about these names, I think they really do not belong. I smile and ask him about Suresh Jayaram, Anilkumar and a few other friends who either have taught in CKP or are living in Bangalore. Kuberan knows all of them. I tell him that if he is still in touch with them he should ask whether they know these two names that he has just heard. He gives us a very energetic smile and interestingly does not seem to be affected by our names. I ask him what he does in Thiruvannamalai. He tells me that he comes to do portrait work whenever his friend gets a commission from patrons and he is not able to finish the assignment on time. Kuberan then speaks of his exhibitions and abilities. He also says that these days he works on large scale canvases. Shibu asks him whether he could sit for a few minutes so that he could sketch him. He obliges. Shibu starts his work and I start clicking pictures. Shibu finishes the portrait of Kuberan in a few minutes and he has definitely drawn a portrait of Kuberan, complete with his hungry eyes; eyes hungry for fame, recognition and success even at the risk of not knowing anything about the art scene where he belongs.

Slowly people move away from there after appreciating Shibu’s drawing skills. Shibu is unaffected by such praises. He does not even smile. I order for another round of tea. Shibu keeps looking at the portraits that he has just made. I sit beside him and look at them. They are real. They are full of life. But Shibu does not seem to be excited. Suddenly he tells me about the eyes of those sitters; not particularly their eyes, but the way he has drawn them. Generally artists do two dots or one dot, light or dark in order to highlight the reflection of light on the pupils of the sitter’s eyes. That is the way a portrait gets its life. Now look at these portraits. The eyes are drawn differently. You do not see even a complete circle. I look at those portraits. The eyes are not complete but they are full of life. It is how a master artist gives life to the images that he makes. The eyes are just a clever manipulation of a half circle (an arc) and two conjoined triangles with its points looking leftwards. It looks so easy to make, but in the given portraits they stand absolutely merged without even giving away a hint of deliberation. Kuberan comes back with his Tab. He takes photographs with us and promises that he would send the pictures to our facebook accounts, which he never does. I have seen the photographs that he has taken with us. It looks good. So I thought of getting them via facebook. That never happens. One day I check him out in facebook. He is known as Gubendran Artist in facebook. There are a lot of photographs in it mostly heralding his artistic achievements.

We resume our walking. The climate has grown too hot and humid. When we arrived here it was raining a little bit. Now we really crave for some rains. We get this strange feeling that there would be rain today. We reach the city side of the mountain. After a few deliberations we decide to visit Viroopaksha Cave and Skandashramam on the next day. Later we go to a simple eatery and have our breakfast; some idlis and sambar. And the sambar tastes really good. We walk back and by noon we are there at the Ramana Ashram again. We decide to sit there for a few minutes and then go back home for our daily siesta on a swinging cot. The mendicants and Sadhus have lined up under the tree for lunch. Ashram volunteers run here and there to make all arrangements for distributing food. We sit there watching all these. Everything is a seva, a service here. The foreigners and rich ladies take position with ladles and spoons to serve food to the disciplined mendicants who wait for their food in zigzagging line. Monkeys come and play around us. Shibu takes out his sketching pad and makes some interesting portraits of monkeys. They do not sit still like the langoors, the large gray haired monkeys. They are always on the move. Hence Shibu captures only their faces. Soon a page is lined with faces of monkeys. I give them imaginary names. My tired legs do not allow me to think anything else other than rest. Happy they are by now as they are in a pair of light chappals. I look at the mendicants and Sadhus standing in a queue there. They do not wear any footwear. They seem to be okay with that. May be like Maria in Eleven Minutes they too must be getting a spiritual high as they walk barefoot on rough paths. The path is rough I know. But I do not want my feet to hurt. I want my heart and mind walk on the rough path and want to get them crunched, crushed, kneaded, bruised and hurt. May be the liberation through spiritual ecstasy that I have been waiting to happen in me would happen then; in pain. Perhaps, the pain is already in the offing.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Half Girlfriend and the Art of Film-novels

(chetan bhagat)

Madhav Jha, a young basketball player from Dumraon, a remote town in Bihar lands up in Delhi’s St. Stephen’s College, seeking admission in Sociology through sports quota. Rich, tall and beautiful Riya Somani from Delhi too comes to the same college seeking admission in English Literature, as providence goes, through sports quota. Madhav, though hailing from an erstwhile royal family in Bihar suffers from English Complex; he just cannot speak in English. At the basketball court Madhav and Riya meet. They could not have missed each other. Despite the English barrier and class difference, they become thick friends. Madhav falls in love with Riya and she in turn wants only to be his half girl friend, that also after much coaxing. Goaded by English complex and persuaded by his Bhojpuri speaking immature friends, Madhav finds to win her forever through forcing himself on her. It puts her off. She drops out marries her childhood friend, Rohan, now a successful hotelier living in London, and leaves India. Heartbroken and crestfallen, more than driven by a sense of guilt, Madhav after finishing his graduation, goes back to Dumraon in order to assist his mother in running their dilapidated school.

That is the first part of Chetan Bhagat’s latest novel, Half Girlfriend, for you. But the story does not end there in that moody note. As Bhagat says in the preface of the book, he writes for facilitating a change in our country, at least a change in the general mindset of the people regarding relationships, notions of success and failure, and also about pursuing a dream. Bhagat has done it in his previous novels too. In his first novel he spoke of life taking a turn at the face of a fatal accident. In the novels that followed he wrote profusely about how the contemporary youngsters think of their lives, politics and love. Bhagat always insists that it is not politicians and policy makers who decide the life of the youngsters in any country. The youth all over the world give a new direction and dynamics to the societies that they live in and what policy makers could do is to know their pulse and catch up with the change. Bhagat’s novels though they do not belong to the classical zone of literature, narrate the story of young people whose aspirations are often deemed as trivial. In their pursuits that apparently look jovial and trivial, there exists an ideal; an ideal that is realizable in our limited lives.

Many readers ‘trash’ Bhagat’s novels and they say that they would rather see them as they are also now staple stories for Bollywood flicks. True, most of the commercially successful novels in the world today are written in the multiple possibilities of the text; the text that could be made into moving visuals. Novels today share an interesting relationship with movies. At times, when you read Dan Brown’s novels you feel that his novels are written in consultation with the most daring and imaginative script writers in Hollywood who could cook up the most intriguing plots in the genre of literature. Dan Brown’s novels read like a film script with extra details thrown into it. Bhagat’s though not intricate like Brown’s also read like film scripts. If readers feel that they would see his novels when they are made into movies, we cannot discount the truth in that view. Here literature moves into business with extravagant further plans to franchise it and merchandise it. Perhaps, this is where good literature differs from not so good ones. Good literature is always readerly. They cannot be converted into a visual form without damaging sensibility of the original text. But the new literary attempts are made always keeping a possible movie coming up as a visual translation.

Bhagat’s novels are translatable and they are widely translated in Indian languages. But they are not widely read all over the world because it is typically India centric and the issues and problems discussed in them are not universal per se. Though love and pursuit of happiness are two themes that are universal, one reader from Russia need not be particularly interested in what is going on in the mind of a Bihari youth. However, the same could be shared by a Malayali sitting in South or a Manipuri sitting in East. Interestingly, Bhagat could be called the novelist of the cafĂ© coffee day generation or the starbucks generation. When you go to one of these outlets for a cup of coffee you see young people like Madhav Jha and Riya Somani engaged in animated talks, doing most trivial things like clicking selfies, typing words furiously into their laptops or simply looking into each other’s eyes and living eternity over a cup of coffee. Bhagat writes, not for this generation but about this generation.

In ‘Half Girlfriend’ too, like in his other novels, Bhagat writes about the young generation. The novelist is at once inside and outside the novel; he is the listener as well as part narrator of the story, the main story teller being, Madhav Jha, the protagonist himself. Like in some other inspirational novels of our times, the story comes to the writer and he begins as an unwilling receiver of the story. In this case, Bhagat evens dumps the manuscript, a bunch of old diaries written by Riya Somani, brought to him by Madhav Jha, in his hotel room in Patna, while the narrator is on a visit there. Madhav has not read the diaries of Riya because he believes that she is dead and gone. But the unwilling reader who is the writer himself finds out that Riya is still alive. Passing of this message of Madhav sets the second part of the novel on.

Madhav gets a grant from the Bill Gates Foundation to build toilets in his mother’s school. In one of his visits in Patna, he chances upon Riya who has now come back to India after divorcing Rohan. She is currently working with the Nestle company as a marketing manager. Riya once again becomes Madhav’s half girl friend. Madhav’s mother disapproves their friendship; anyway not a great reason for her to abscond. But still she absconds and through the diary left intentionally by her in the apartment where she was living in Patna, she lets Madhav know that she has been suffering from a fatal lung cancer. She disappears into thin air and Madhav lives on bereaving her death every moment in his life. It was then he comes to know through Bhagat that Riya must be still alive and the death story was all a hogwash.

Riya had told Madhav that she wanted to pursue her happiness by becoming a Jazz singer at some bar in New York. Madhav had laughed it off. But the diary entry now sets him work. He has to find out Riya. He goes to New York with the help of the Bill Gates Foundation. He scouts through every music joint and pub in New York, even to the extent that his friend suggests him that he needs psychiatric assistance. A day before Madhav is supposed to leave for India, through a messenger (such angels are seen only in films and stories) he comes to know a Riya like singer is found in a pub. The music program closes at 12.00 night. Madhav on a snowing night runs around six kilometers only to find his love on stage. This is a cinematic climax, the long lost beloved on stage and a thoroughly tired lover in front of her. As the camera revolves and the onlookers cheer on, they fall in a deep embrace and kiss (a kiss that he has been wanting from her all his life).

The novel closes when Bhagat comes as a guest to their school. Now Riya is also a teacher and the Madhav’s mother has taken the role of a supportive mother-in-law looking after their two year old son. The last scene is the young child trying to basket a ball. Madhav tells him keep trying for they are not quitters. One could hear the sighs of relief from the readers as well as the future film viewers. It could be heart wrenching love story, but at the same time it is a story about two Indias; one that speaks English and the other does not. It is a story during the time of honor killings. It is a story narrated during the times when love is short tripped for flimsy reasons. Bhagat gets it right but I do not know how the readers have taken it, though the film people have already started finding actors for the lead roles. ‘Half Girlfriend’ is a page turner. I am sure the intellectuals amongst would, however read it hiding. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Thiruvannamalai Journey Continues: About Saffron Clothes and Akshara Mana Malai

(a saffron clad mendicant in Kumbhamela)

I wear a saffron lungi/dhoti/mundu. And Shibu Natesan hates the colour. He prefers white dhotis. The reason for him to abhor saffron dhotis is its abundance use of anti-social elements in Kerala. In Kerala, like women wearing nightie as their ‘natural’ dress, most of the youngsters wear saffron dhotis as if it were the regional uniform for youth in Kerala. Saffron lungi was made popular by the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) activists and it had given them a special identity. Saffron lungi, a black thread around their wrists, a sandal paste mark on their foreheads- anybody could recognize an RSS follower from this dress code. Later on during the Sabarimala season in December people started wearing these lungis as it had some meanings associated with pilgrimages. Though black lungi and black shirt are the prescribed uniform of the pilgrims who visit Sabarimala, where Lord Ayyappa resides, saffron lungis are also in vogue these days. One of the early devotional songs sung by Yesudas, clearly says, Sabarimala is the Southern Himalaya, and Southern Bhagirathi is Pampa river that flows at the foot of Sabarimala. The song also says, ‘the devotees wearing saffron go to Kashi/Banaras/ and devotees wearing black go to Sabarimala’. The belief comes from the fact that in Banaras the reigning deity is Vishwanath, Lord Shiva and in Sabarimala, it is Shiva’s and Vishnu’s son, Lord Ayyappa. There is an interesting fusion of Shaivism and Vaishnavism in the Ayyappa cult in Kerala. Ayyappa is controversially said to be a saint worshipped by the Buddhists who were chased out of Kerala by the joint effort of the Shaivaites and Vaishnavaites. Later to adopt the Ayyappa devotees into the fold of larger Hinduism, myths were created about his birth as the son of a Lord Shiva and Vishnu in his incarnation as Mohini.

There is another reason for Shibu to detest saffron lungis. You go to any junction in Kerala, you will see reckless youth standing there wearing these saffron lungis. They just do not give any damn to the elders, nor do they respect the social norms. Shibu is not a strong believer in social norms. However, he believes that the young people who wear saffron lungis carry within them a latent terror that is detrimental to the positive growth of a cultured society. Saffron lungis are popular amongst the auto drivers in Kerala. Interestingly, most of the auto-rickshaws in Kerala have ‘names’ of gods and goddesses. Most of these names are unheard of in the dominant Hindu pantheon. Gods and goddesses carrying these names are later recoveries from the regional religious myths. The resurgence of a nationalist and pride based Hinduism in the first decade of the new millennium, especially after the attack on the World Trade Centre by the Talibans in 2001 and the general hate wave against the Muslims, has caused the proliferation of saffron lungis amongst the youth. Most of the auto drivers are staunch RSS supporters, it seems. Some of them are even Shiva Sena followers. Today you could see a lot of Shiva Sena units in Kerala. It is an irony that the first wave of Shiva Sena establishment came in Maharashtra as a large scale opposition against the South Indian working class in Bombay in late 1960s and early 1970s. Shiva Sena got its foothold in the liberal soil of Bombay by spreading the idea of Marathi Asmita (Marathi Pride) amongst the jobless Marathi youth. Bala Saheb Thackarey needed to create an ‘other’ in order to focus the ire of the lumpen elements of Shiva Sena in the streets and consolidate its political influence amongst the Marathis. Educated and ready to work, the South Indians were holding most of the decent jobs. Shiva Sena wanted to oust the South Indians from the soil of Bombay and reserve all the jobs for the Marathis. Though Shiva Sena became a reckonable political power, they put their agenda of ousting the south Indians to backburner in due course of time. Today, their ire is against the Bhayyas (people of North Indian origin, especially people from Bihar and UP), who live in Mumbai and do most of the lowly jobs like taxi drivers and pan wallahs and so on. Somehow, the youngsters who wear saffron lungis and join Shiva Sena units in Kerala seem to have missed the point completely.

 (Kerala auto drivers wearing saffron lungis)

Wearing saffron lungis gives the youngsters some kind of political protection and this is maximum utilized by the auto-drivers and organized union workers. According to the government rules, auto drivers are supposed to wear Khaki pants and shirts during the duty hours. Though most of them do not obey this rule, regular checking conducted by the Police has made them adopt a new style. They wear a khaki shirt like an overall over their shirts, which give them an added authority as drivers, the way a white parasol gives authority to a medical student or nurse. With this they combine a saffron lungi for a complete uniform. Considering the meanings attached to a saffron lungi even the Policemen do not insist that they wear a khaki pants. Saffron lungis are highly revered when it is seen in a religious and spiritual context. There are so many well meaning people in Kerala and elsewhere in India, who stick to wearing saffron lungis in order to underline their lack of desire and greed. Though they live in the middle of the society, they seem to proclaim that they have eschewed the desires of life and have taken a path of renunciation. Though this is not the case always, wearing saffron lungis have become a common trend in Kerala. Responding to this added interest and catering to the increasing demand so many textile companies, local weaving societies and even branded companies have started bringing saffron lungis and they all have become very popular in Kerala. To affix it in the cultural memory of a region, most of the popular movie heroes, who at least in a few scene show their male virility by subscribing to the generic Hindu ideals and uttering bombastic dialogues replete with chauvinistic views, are religiously shown wearing saffron lungis. To tap the potential of this growing market, many companies have brought out lungis with various shades of saffron and also the shades of all other possible colours.

Saffron clothes are tremendously respected in India. If you wear a pair of saffron unstitched saffron clothes and move around in the country, you will never be harassed by the Police unless you have a criminal look on your face and your movements are suspicious. You extend your palm and you will be given food or alms by so many people. In trains you may travel without ticket at the corridors or near the bathroom. No ticket examiner will ask you to go out. Thanks to these privileges enjoyed by the colour saffron so many people switch to wearing saffron and become mendicants so that they could live without doing any job. So many spiritual gurus have come up these days and most of them wear saffron clothes so that their spiritual abilities are convincingly displayed in the society that is attuned to the virtues of saffron clothes; or the terror involved in it. Generally, in North India, if you go around wearing a white dhoti you are clearly marked out as a south Indian. South Indians have this special knack of folding it up and tying it below the waist line, exposing your legs below the knees. Though the North Indian people also wear shorts and their knees are also equally exposed, when they see a man wearing a folded lungi, they find it really funny. Some of them condescendingly say that most of the South Indians use their maximum energy in folding and unfolding the lungi. That’s why the youngsters from Kerala who migrate to other places, sooner than later switch to wearing shorts or track suits so that their regional identities are not exposed in one go. I recently had an experience of wearing a saffron lungi for morning walk. The reason for wearing one was that I did not find a pair of shorts at my disposal. I wore this lungi and went for a morning walk in Delhi’s famous Indira Gandhi National Open University campus that opens its door during early morning and letting the people from the neighborhood use its tracks for morning walks. While I was walking people looked at me reverentially and did not even show a hint of amusement or contempt on their faces.  Had I been wearing a white dhoti or a lungi with printed flowers or designs, I would have eked out a few giggles on that early morning trip to nature.


In Indian socio-cultural consciousness, the effect of saffron clothes is tremendous. India being a land of Sadhus and Sannyasis, this is one color that is predominantly seen in pilgrim centers. Thanks to its spiritual associations, when the Indian National Congress was looking for a flag for its own propagandist and political purposes, they adopted saffron along with white and green, seeing its potential to associate with the people’s imagination. When Indian became independent, in the national flag saffron remained along with the other two colours, heralding the spiritual bend of the Indian population. The ideological other of the Congress, manifested in the various offshoots of the parent Hindu Mahasabha that subscribe to a sort of parochial dominant Hindu ideology, too adopted saffron as the colour of their flags for its potent symbolism. Though today we could see silk saffron robes which shame even the most royal garbs of yester years, the origin of saffron clothes is different. The people who had renounced world, had also renounced their clothes. They wore white to highlight their spiritual purity. But they were not living in the luxury of households. They were living in forests and caves. And they were traveling from one place to another on foot. As they travelled these white clothes became dirty. The people who had left the worldly desires and ambitions did not mind wearing dirty clothes. They washed it whenever they found a pond. But the dirt remained. It became naturally tinted with a saffron/kavi colour. Later, with the establishment of spiritual mendicants as a part of the society’s imagination, people who left their homes started deliberately dirtying their white clothes to show the strength of their renouncing.

Recently, while talking to Dr.Deepak John Mathew, a Professor in the Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad, he told me another story about the origin of saffron clothes, which I found quite convincing. It was sage Buddha who had adopted saffron as his ‘official’ robe after leaving his family life in the royal palace. He adopted this dress code because, he wanted to stand with the wretched and condemned in the society. In his days, like even today , the most wretched, tortured and condemned people are those who live in the jails for their real or accused crimes. A jail bird is also automatically a social outcast. Michel Foucault in his Madness and Civilization speaks of the criminals, diseased and mad people who were sent to remote islands by a ship. This ship was called ship of fools. In the time of Buddha, these outcasts were given a uniform; of saffron clothes! Saffron being a stark colour which is visible in day light and darkness, were given to the social outcasts because they could be noticed from any distance. A society that practiced untouchability must have found this a very feasible solution to keep its own purity. They could avoid the people who were wearing saffron clothes. Also it was conducive for the authorities to locate a criminal if he tries to flee. As the criminals were put into hard work in fields and quarries and other work sites, it was easy for the slave driver to locate them. When Buddha decided to leave his home and to become a monk, he did a revolutionary decision to change his clothes. He adopted the clothes of the criminals and social outcasts. He achieved two things with this: one, he could tell the world that he was either a criminal or a nonconformist. Two, he is one with those who are outcasted. He wanted to say that he loved human beings without considering their social position. His prime philosophy was centered around three principles; Karuna, Mudita and Upeksha. Piety, Bliss and Discernment. He had piety for all those who suffered. He believed life’s fundamental aim was to experience bliss and he discerned what is right amongst a host of wrong deeds and highlighted that. Buddha’s adoption of saffron clothes perhaps scientifically justified today for the simple reason that world’s strongest penitentiary, Guantanamo Bay uses saffron clothes for its inmates. So is the case of the prisons like Abu Graib. The images of those hapless political and religious suspects in those jails, crouching in various poses wearing saffron clothes must be still afresh in the public memory.

(Prisoners in Guantanamo Bay)

I wear this saffron lungi because I do not have any other lungi. I have a white dhoti in my bag but I keep it for a special occasion in Thiruvannamalai. Besides, I keep this particular saffron lungi with me because it is gifted to me by K.S.Radhakrishnan, the artist. I draw a lot of wisdom from him and hold him in high esteem not only as a mentor but also as my guru. Though Shibu is not so senior to me, I hold him in a guru’s position because I believe that he is one of those rare people who have helped me to dispel my inner darkness. Guru being the dispeller of darkness, there are several people who appear as gurus in several occasions, make a mark in your life and leave. There are visible gurus and invisible ones. There are palpable ones and imaginary ones. It is not necessary that you need to keep a photo of your guru and do pujas every day. Keeping the light that these gurus lit up in your mind undying is important. However, one difference between KSR and Shibu as my gurus is that while I cannot say one irreverent word to KSR, but I could profusely pull Shibu's leg. And he does not lag in doing the same to me. Whenever we get a chance, we don’t waste time pulling each other’s legs. Sometimes we wonder may be in a very advanced age too, we would be doing the same (striking goals, is pulling legs in our parlance) as we refuse to kill those two small boys who grew up together long back in a small village called Vakkom. So I wear saffron lungi and Shibu does not miss the chance to ridicule me. His face contorts in deliberate efforts of distortion and I return the same grace looking at his white lungi. And we come out of Arthur Osborne’s house.

In the Ramana Ashram, preparations for evening prayer have already started. We enter in the large hall and see a lot of people in pure white clothes sitting inside in deep meditation and silence. Some of them walk around the main Samadhi where Ramana Maharshi’s golden statue is kept and Shibu hints at me that we too do the rounds. We start walking. We cannot walk together as the squaring corridor around the Samadhi is narrow. First we walk one after another, following many other devotees and followed by other devotees. They after some time we lose each other as our moving pace changes. I slowly forget Shibu is with me. He also must be in the same mental state. We keep walking. I lose myself in thoughts. In the morning, at the bookshop in the Ashram I had read ‘Who am I?’, a small booklet that carries the crux of Ramana’s teaching, standing. The words from the book reverberate in my mind. As I think more about it, my walking pace increases. Suddenly I realize the foolishness of it? What am I chasing? I slowly down the pace of my walking. I hear some hissing sounds behind me. Out of instinct, I turn my neck and see. A hefty European devotee, in his white shorts and white shirts, walks behind me chanting some words. His face looks red due to the effort of his brisk walking. I see beads of sweat on his temple. He seems to be unaware of everything around him. At the windows around the shrine, I see old people sitting like shadows in deep concentration. After a few minutes Shibu catches up with me. He whispers into my ears that we should go and sit in the hall so that we could her Akshara Mana Malai, chanted by the trustees and devotees in the Ashram. I agree and we go at one front corner of the hall and sit there and wait for the chanting to start.

(chanting Akshara Mana Malai at Ramana Ashram)

They are all old people. With studied patience, a natural calmness all of them sit in two rows, males in one row and females in the other. They face each other. Two old trustees, an old couple sit on a chair as they are too old to sit on the floor with folded legs. The priest finishes his aarti at the shrine. Suddenly the hall goes completely silent. Each person sitting in those rows have a small booklet in his/her hands. They wait as if for some cue to come from someone. We too wait expectantly. The silence is too deep to fathom. I feel the blue depths of an ocean where someone has taken a lonely dive. Then a humming vibrates the air: ‘Tarunarunamani kiranavalinihir tharumakshara mahimalai’ (This garland of words, like the rays of morning sun). I try to focus on the words. But the chanting is too deep to decipher and the Tamil seems to be inaccessible for me then. “Arunachalmena Ahame ninaypavar/ahatthe arupey arunachala”. “If one focuses on Arunachala in his mind/he could cut the roots of his ego, oh Arunachala.” I follow the chanting. The more l listen to it, the more I tend to forget the person who is listening to it. The more I feel that I have lost something about myself, the more it comes back to me. I am in confusion now. It says that if I think of Arunachala it will kill my ego, the I-ness in me. But here, hapless and helpless, I am thinking about the ‘I’ who is listening to it. I look at Shibu. He seems to be there yet not there. I do not want to disturb him. The chanting seems to have a strange effect on me. I am not thinking about it. I am just listening. Sometimes I feel a pain. Something is severed. I try to neglect it. I shift my numbing leg from under the other leg. I am not used to sitting on the floor for long time.

This chanting is called ‘Akshara Mana Malai.’ Written by Ramana Maharshi, almost hundred years ago, these hundred verses that comprise the crux of Maharshi’s philosophy are chanted every day at the Ramana Ashram. When Ramana Maharshi was alive, he also did the same with his devotees. Though devotees had taken it as a prayer that hailed the Lord Arunachala, they equally considered it as a praise of Ramana Maharshi. Interestingly, when the devotees praised Ramana in these verses, Ramana Maharshi too praised ‘himself’ without any embarrassment. For him, ‘bhagavan’ (god) was not different from him so when he chanted the praising of god, even if his name was uttered once in a while in the verses, he did not feel it was about him. He was a person who had transcended and had become one with the universe. He, like a child identified himself with the god and was never vainly proud of it. When devotees called him god, he also called them god because he could not see anything else in the universe other than god. He was a saint who lived his philosophy.

(Ramana Maharshi)

There is an interesting story behind Ramana Maharshi writing this Akshara Mana Malai. Ramana Maharshi himself and all of his devotees who lived the ashram used to go for begging alms in the nearby villages. This was a practiced started long back when Ramana was living in Skandashramam, where there was no kitchen of their own. As Ramana Maharshi was very much revered by the villagers, they used to cook special food for the devotees and Maharshi who came begging. They used to blow a conch and sing ‘Sambho mahadeva, sambho mahadeva’. Hearing this people came out of their homes and served them food in their begging bowls. But some other sannyasis and mendicants living there in Thiruvannamalai, finding this opportunity used to imitate the acts of Ramana Maharshi and his devotees, and take away all the food. It put the devotees of Ramana in distress as they were turned away by the people thinking that they were fake sadhus. Hence, they requested Ramana Maharshi to write some chanting verses for them so that they could make themselves distinct while going for begging. Though Maharshi tried his hand he could not go beyond a few verses. He left it there. Once he was on doing Girivalam, these hundred verses occurred in him. He recited them and they were written down by the devotees. This is known as Akshara Mana Malai. The chants that were composed as a begging anthem took no time to become the main prayer of the ashram. Even today, the piety and devotion fill in the air when it is chanted.

Coming back to our lodging, I sit quite for a long time. It is raining outside. Shibu flips through the pages of the books that he has bought that morning. I recline on the divan completely exhausted. Shibu takes out his sketching pad and starts sketching me. I smile at him and hold my pose. I am sure, this is another opportunity that I am giving him to make yet another distorted portrait of mine.

(Those who are interested in Akshara Mana Malai could follow this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrk4TbOXBZ8

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Thiruvannamalai Journey Continues: A Dream

Annihilate your thoughts for thoughts are those things that give you the idea of ‘I’. People mistake thoughts for their ‘I-ness’. In the west Descrates said, ‘I think therefore I am’. Sages in India say thoughts are misplaced ‘I-ness’ for ‘I’ does not exist in thoughts. Who am I? Ramana Maharshi explained to his devotees. Is ‘I’ the thoughts? Or the five indriyas, sensory elements, that experience the thoughts? Individual ‘I’ is an illusion. It is like the sun seen reflected in a splintered glass. The sun that is reflected on the splinter is not the sun. Some sages, who believe in certain meditative techniques, say that one could remove thoughts from mind by practicing certain methods of meditation. They ask the followers to stop thoughts by ‘force’. Ramana Maharshi does not ask the devotees to do any violence on oneself, even on one’s own thoughts. He asks them to sit quietly and see the thoughts that come up like waves in a sea. If one keeps watching the thoughts, at some point they stop to exist. However, that moment could be a fleeting one. To do this one needs patience and humility. If you have the ability to sit still and silent for a long time, then you would reach a point where thoughts no longer exist. It is like peeling an onion. Keep peeling the thoughts, finally you will find that there is nothing; no I. For those people who do not have an innate disposition to be calm and quiet, sages advice certain practices. Focusing on the image or idea of Ishta Devata (a god or guru of one’s liking) is one of those practices. In today’s world, so many crash courses on self realization offer instant deliverance from the self or of the self rather through physical exercises like Yoga. Life style changes and surging desire of human beings to consume more and to be distinct has taken the practicing of yoga to unimaginable areas that include aerobic yoga. Yoga is a self disciplining technique and is one of the ways to sit still and focus. Many people foolishly believe that mere doing yoga makes them living ‘saints’. One day a yoga expert approached Sree Narayana Guru and boasted about his expertise in it and also tried to explain the positive sides of yoga. Narayana Guru smiled and did not give that much importance to it. Crestfallen, the yoga guru finally said, “Guru, at least this is good for good bowel movements.” Narayana Guru had famously retorted, “For that one just need to take a tea spoon full of castor oil, right?” Ramakrishan Paramahansa also has said something identical. Someone came to him and claimed that he had practiced swimming for a long time and now he could cross Ganga within minutes. Paramahansa smiled and said, “For that you just need to pay an anna to the boatman.”

Sleep is the only occasion when thoughts cease to exist. If one is in deep sleep, one does not come to know about his own existence. He or she may be a banker or a poet, a minister or a scavenger, billionaire or a pauper, when in sleep, he/she does not identify with these selves. That’s why they say that sleep is as good as death. The only difference is that from death there is no return; one becomes a part of the universe. But from sleep one comes back to life. The moment we are back in life, we start asking questions to ourselves. These questions come in the form of thoughts. We not only ask questions but also form ideas, make decisions and as we go along we think a number of things which in fact do not have anything to do with our lives. The more we think, the more this false idea of ‘I’ comes to be strong. The fact is that we do not come to know how strong our ‘I’ feeling is unless and until we are confronted with an adversary situation. People kill each other for parking spaces, good neighbors turn worst enemies for the barking or pooping of a pet dog, people fist fight on the road for one driver not letting other overtake. Each time they fight or kill, they think that they are doing it because they have something called ‘I’ to protect from attack. They never ask this question whether the parking space or a chance to overtake or dog’s poop defines their ‘I’ ness. If a dog’s barking could make someone to take out a pistol from his chest, then his ‘I’ ness is as little as a dog or as he imagines, it is as big as his ideas about his or his neighbor’s dog. The man who fights for his ‘I’ness could be a rich business man or a college student or even a poet. They all attach their ‘I’ ness to the pettiest things in the world. But in sleep such ‘I’s do not exist. In meditation too, one loses this ‘I’ness and gets into a state which is similar to sleep. But the fundamental difference between sleep and meditative realization of the self or the annihilation of ‘I’ ness is that in sleep you do not know that you exist but I meditative realization one ‘knows’ that he/she exists; not as I but as the I, which is the universe itself.

I have read it all. But reading is one thing, realization is another. Not as a scholar but as an enthusiast, I had read a whole lot of spiritual literature during my formative years. The problem is that formative years those years in anybody’s life when one starts thinking too much about ‘I’. Our education system promotes this formation of ‘I’. To become a ‘successful’ individual is the goal of our education. You become a doctor not to serve the society but to earn money. You become an engineer not to make bridges and buildings, but to make money and successful. Girls get educated not to become independent and sublime human beings but either to get a good job or to satisfy certain social demands including marriage. Hence, anything that advices people to leave their pursuit of worldly success is considered to be an abominable idea. But when once people becomes successful in the theatre of the world, they start thinking about their own selves. That’s why most of the people start doing yoga or similar things. There are also they consolidate their ‘I’ ness and feel that they achieved ‘success’ in that front too. There are people who are born with a philosophical bend and they do not attach much value to the worldly life. They become sages in one or the other way. Some people in due course of life realize the unworthiness of worldly life and its cementing aspect called the ‘I’ ness, and leave everything aside and start the enquiry, who am I? But nobody recognizes the fact that in sleep, every day or night they attain what they are seeking. Once they realize that there could be a sleep that is absolute wakefulness then they could continue in that relaxing mode. Nothing will affect them. Most of the people reading this by now has formed this idea that this sounds all good in reading but not in practice. I would say, everyone is not a poet, everyone is not a painter, everyone is not a dancer, everyone is not a scientist and everyone is not everything. People realize their life’s mission as they go along with their lives. The moment they recognize the fact that their life and their mission are not two different things, then they become awakened people. In sleep too they remain awake. In that sense, everyone has a mission in life but they think that the mission and life are two different things. They sleep like dead people and wake up only to think the unnecessary thoughts.

What does a man who could remain awake even when he is in sleep do in his normal life? Such a man becomes the universe itself. He does not become a part of the universe. He realizes that he in himself is the universe. When he knows that he is the universe, that he is not a small ‘I’ but a big ‘I’ then this idea of the other cease to exist. Para and apara, the eternal and that is not eternal, the divine and the mundane become one and the same. For a man who has realized that he is the universal ‘I’, stops to have any bheda bhava, the idea of difference. He is not afraid of leopards or snakes because for him he is not different from a snake. When you are not different from a snake you are need not be afraid of it. In our daily lives, in our worldly lives, human beings are not afraid of snakes or other wild animals. Why, because they have annihilated all the snakes, wild animals and pests from their living environs. After finishing off all the natural beings, human beings live in glass houses, completely protected. But they are still afraid of certain beings. The name of that being is the ‘other’ human being. We are no longer afraid of snakes because they are not there anymore. But we are afraid of human beings because they are in abundance everywhere. Human beings live in a world of mutual fear and suspicion. Hence, they do not believe in their own servants, drivers, security men and anybody who looks different, dress different or speak different. Human beings make laws for themselves so that they could differentiate people further. Your life is on the hands of your driver as he drives you through a hillside in the middle of the night. But still you are afraid of him. When you get out to pee, you take your bag of cash along with you because you do not trust your driver. You do not keep the jewelry outside because you are afraid that your maid servant will take it away. The irony is that human beings do not even believe their Yoga teachers or gurus. And they always say that the world has changed and these days we cannot believe anybody or anything. They do not understand that this is the same opinion others have about them in turn too.

A man or woman who has realized that he is in an eternal sleep, yet in complete wakefulness does not fear the other. He does not have anything to lose. He is rich yet he cannot be robbed. He is rich because his wealth is his realization itself. A robber can take away books but he cannot take away knowledge. The saints are said to be naked people. They are the people who burn their abodes and go out in the open completely naked. We call them mad because they do not conform to our ideas about life which is based on competition, suspicion and success. These people who have burnt down their palaces and gone out in the open naked do not have anything to lose. Whatever kept them bound are now gone. They are free people. They have gone into their sleep which gives them peace and solace, at the same time there they are completely awaken. They are not afraid of people. Their burning of the abodes and walking in nude are metaphorical expressions. That is the only way they could tell people that nothing is needed; neither abodes nor clothes. One who wears sky as clothes and subsists on nature cannot be defeated or robbed. He cannot be contested or held captive. He is a man who has lost his ‘I-ness’ and has become the ‘I’ itself. How can one fight sun with a mirror? In the world of false gods and rich sadhus and gurus, such naked people are a rarity. But they are there and they are not seen in the guise of Sadhus or Sannyasis. There are people, absolute grihastis, who live in marriage and worldly life, completely immersed in practical life still without fear. They handle their worldly issues with equanimity. They are naked from inside. Neighbor’s dog does not challenge him. A big car overtaking his small car does not hurt him. He may not overtly help others. But he does not go out to destroy others because for him there is no other. Annihilating the other for him is annihilating himself, destroying his sleep as well as his wakefulness.

Suddenly I wake up from sleep and I look at my watch. It is four in the evening. Shibu Natesan sleeps tight next to me. I look at his face. No lines of disturbance are seen on his face. My getting up has caused a gentle rocking of the swing cot. It moves. Was I dreaming? Before sleeping, Shibu had told me that we would go to the Ramana Ashram for evening prayer. You will find peace, he had assured. I sit there a bit dazed. I feel a sort of blankness. Then the thoughts start coming one by one; what am I doing here? Where are my children now? What could be my future? Will something happen to me if I go and sit at the prayer hall at the Ramana Ashram? If something happens? Whatever I understood while sleeping was a dream or wakefulness? Is my head aching? Should I take a Dispirin? What about my aching legs? The footwear is so heavy. Shouldn’t I buy a light pair of walking shoes? With a smile I realize that I have come back to the world of little ‘I-ness’. But give it a chance. Give the would be experience also a chance. I turn once again to Shibu. Da Dey, I call him, a code word between us. He opens his eyes and smiles. It’s time, I tell him. No, it’s not the right time, he says and goes back to sleep. The cot swings again. I stand up and see myself marooned in my loneliness and anticipation.