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.