Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Portraits of Artists in Bangalore: The Journey 6

Mahesh Kummar, Shibu Natesan, Latah Kurien, Johny ML
This is an interim chapter in a possibly never ending travelogue. It is not necessary that I travel from one place to another; I could be stable at one place and could see the world pass by or even let people come to me. When they come, they bring a different world to me. When I sit in a religious shrine my meditation is also on people and the possibilities of the stories that they are carrying with them. The other day I was sitting with artist Anil Janardanan at Ramana ashram in Thiruvannamalai where he had come to attend the Shivarathri festivals. A middle aged couple passed by us. Anil said he could see two huge wings on her shoulders almost touching on the floor that made her incapable of flying away. Soon he added that her husband was a gentleman happy with what he had got as dowry along with the bride. Perhaps he wanted to ask for more but he was afraid of his father-in-law. We laughed enjoying the story thoroughly. If one could come up with such flights of fancies what could really be their own stories! 

In Bangalore I meet a few friends and suddenly I feel that they are mobile and I am stable for they have come from different places and are going to different places soon. But I know their stories partially; I want to recount them briefly and feel how much I remember not only the stories but also the people around whom those small anecdotes are built.
N S Harsha

N.S.Harsha: When I met him first he was painting some expressionistic organic interiors and the large canvases looked ambitious for a student in early 1990s in Baroda. Harsha had a backache; his grandparents and parents had asked him to write certain chants repeatedly in order to alleviate himself from the pain. He had shown me some of his chat inscriptions. It seems to have persisted in his works even in his matured period as an artist. Everything came in multiples; sleeping men, eating men, married couples, sewing machines, flags and what not. Harsha paints intricate patterns that resemble the intricate network of underground roots or the branches of innumerable celestial trees that grow dreams. In Bangalore Harsha has just come from Tokyo. He went straight away to the CKP students. He tells me he is suffering from jet lag.

Anilkumar HA
Anilkumar HA: I don't remember when did I meet him first. But I remember him writing in the magazines that I used to edit. The market was booming, artists were making art, galleries were mushrooming, new designations were being created in the art field and along with all these art critics were writing. New art writers were coming up everyday; like a magical picture that looked different from different angles art writer's were becoming curators, gallerists, consultants and party animals. A few in the tribe stood firmly closer to the ethics of art history and criticism. Anilkumar was one. A crusader for vernacular art history and criticism he has also translated certain seminal texts like 'ways of seeing' in Kannada. Anilkumar likes to pep up his articles with quotes and footnotes. As it is CKP rule he too has served as the principal of the art institute. He makes a graphic journal about the city of Bangalore in his leisure time. I see him this time in black shirt and jeans, with a notepad in hand he runs around conducting the illustrated lecture sessions smoothly. He is a smooth talker. 

Latha Kurien
Latha Kurien: Enthusiasm incarnated, that's how I qualify Latha. With formal education in art history from Santiniketan she is someone who did not practice art history or criticism and only worked everything around it. Latha does not visit places; she just happens. With a special ability not only to make friends but also to maintain them pleasantly Latha is welcomed wherever she goes. She established an art cafe and an art gallery in Trivandrum. She had a funny landlord in her gallery who did not allow the gallery visitors park their cars anywhere near his home which was in fact the adjacent courtyard. Like a giant miser he came out often shooing away the visitors till either the lease expired or Latha's patience. With Rajeev Kumar, one of the talented film directors as her husband Latha has dabbled in film making not only as a producer but also a maker of her own short films. I have written a script for her which is yet to materialise. In Bangalore she is a familiar presence for she not only knows the artists but also the city like her palm for she had spent her school days here. By surprising all of us she eats a chocolate ice cream while rest of us drink tea. When you see her next time Latha will be enthusiastically working on something without bothering much about the outcome.

Manjunath Kamath

Manjunath Kamath: I remember meeting Manju (I call him so while rest of the world calls him Kamath) at the foyer of Delhi Lalit Kala Academy sometime in mid-1990s. He had come back from London or some place. I had heard about him from other friends who worked for newspapers as graphic artists. Manju with good graphics skills was also working in one of the major newspapers. We glanced at each other but did not say hello as we never had been introduced formally by anybody. Then I saw his work; the video art was the latest in Delhi and Manju's was a video art piece. He was inside a tele screen reclining on a pillow, sleeping and winking once in a while at the viewer. This image later he used in several of his paintings. Slowly we became friends. I started liking his quirky paintings and personality. His style was imitated by many after the mediatic realism style. He makes sculptures and graphic art. He has trained two fine designers in his studio; Sarath Nayak and Krishna Nayak. Perhaps Indian video art from Delhi owes a lot to Sarath and Manju's then studio at Hauz Khas. One day Manju did a quirky series with a tonsured portrait of mine. He turned me into a lascivious monk in the company of sensuous men and women. Manju's studio in Delhi fed me with tea and art stories. In Bangalore Manju is at a canvas. He tells me that he has made more clouds than images but he is going to make a different work for the museum. And his laughter and warmth has not reduced a bit though it has been long that I visited him in his studio.

T V Santhosh
T.V.Santhosh: I met him in 1994 when Santhosh came to Baroda to pursue masters in sculpture. By that time he had already spent around ten years in various art institutions including Thrissur fine arts college and Santiniketan. Santhosh started off as a cultural activist in his native place often helping the left activists make placards and hoardings. He did a few street theatres before going into full time art studentship. Throughout the student period and later in his matured period too, in his own admission he has been oscillating between hardcore leftism and strongly felt spiritualism. Looking at his oeuvre so far one could say for sure that the social commitment of art informed by the leftist ideology has taken over his spiritual inclinations. Santhosh had felt this oscillation exhilarating but today he finds it cumbersome. It is high time that he settles down in a different zone of art making or setting himself free from all those ideological commitments. In Bangalore when I attend his illustrated lecture surprisingly he comes off as a very eloquent person contrary to the popular image of him being a shy and reticent artist. The commotion in his mind as well as in his works is palpable. There are full of terrorists and revolutionaries in his works. Life and death play chess in them. He speaks of animal and human suicide bombers. He switched from one medium to another. Then finally one asks why this calm and contained artist seems to be so agitated in his works. Santhosh too seems to have realised it. I am sure he is on the path of a total makeover.

Sujith SN

Sujith SN: Before major galleries had picked him up, in mid 2000s I had seen this young artist making good paintings along with his peer group artists namely Sujith Sudhakar, Anil Thambai, Reji Arakkal and so on. Then the market boom happened. Sujith shifted to Mumbai where he found success through various private galleries. He paints misty landscapes and city scapes. He thinks about unfinished languages and visual images. Vast landscapes come repeatedly with huge buildings at the horizon line. There is something mysterious about his works. Sujith used to be a lover of wine. He goes ballistic when he drinks. A gentle guy becomes a little monster. But in Bangalore I see a mature Sujith. He tells me that his child has started attending play school. I feel happy about Sujith. He had done a lot of works by now and some selections from it he shares with us. His eyes, I notice, are red. Why is it so, I wonder.

Mahesh Kummar
Mahesh Kummar: I first met Mahesh in Facebook. Then in Pune Biennale in 2015. He came specially to meet me. He too was a participant in one of the shows in Pune Biennale. He said he was blessed by my presence. He lives in Bangalore and he likes to meet me whenever I am in Bangalore. His liking for me is so great that he started wearing a Rudraksha when I was wearing one. His wife, Maitri and son Ricky are very fond of me. One thing they don't like in me is my influence on Mahesh. Thinking that my Rudraksha practice might have made me stop eating non-veg Mahesh stopped eating non-veg and even stopped drinking beer. One day they invited us to his home in Yelahanka. It was a year back and upon seeing me eating non-veg and drinking beer Mahesh was scandalised. But his decision is strong. He remains a staunch vegetarian. Mahesh is a self taught artist with a great skill. He used to paint typical Indian romantic portraits, festival seasons and landscapes. Now he does a different kind of painting as he teaches himself of various contemporary concepts and techniques. Mahesh is a great friend whom you could rely on for help. Whenever I visit Bangalore Mahesh comes to meet me. Now he has a special edition Maruti Swift Decca in which he gives me a ride. Recently he humbled me: he sent me a message saying that he had sent me some money. I asked why and what for. He said he sold a painting and that he believed because of my blessings. I accepted the money not because I have fancies about my blessing power but because Mahesh's belief in me and his ability to give. If I wouldn't have shown my ability to accept he would have been sad. I don't want anybody sad in the world. Now Mahesh is on his way to his solo exhibition which I have told him to conduct only in 2018 end or 2019 beginning.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

"Want Girls? I have Models." The Bangalore Way- The Journey 5

Shibu Natesan
Waking up from a comfortable bed could be a desirable experience for a traveller than finding one. In Bangalore we wake up early morning from a very cosy double bed which had been given to us by the receptionist with an apology around midnight; sorry we don't have a room with separate beds but you have been upgraded to larger room, the receptionist who looked as fresh as a day even at that odd hour had told us. The booking has been done by Chithra Kala Parishad, Karnataka and Shibu is their guest and myself in this phase of the trip is just an accompanying friend with no particular role, which I find a great job itself which has been paid handsomely with good accommodation, food and a lot of productive time in hand. On the previous night we had driven a long way. Somewhere along the road that went on like a soulful symphony with toll plazas for pauses we had found Bangalore a mere hundred and fifty kilometres away. A quick calculation yielded an average of three and half hours driving time. We had our sleeping gears ready in the car but we found it futile to spend a night in front of a way side in inside the car when we had a standing booking in a hotel three and half hours away. Shibu stepped on the gas and when he got tired I took the charge of the wheels. A well travelled artist though it was Shibu's first visit to Bangalore. Somehow for me Bangalore was just another art city that I had visited several times.

A rigorous and vigorous morning walk is like a doze of rejuvenating medicine for both of us. We hit the side walk of the road  along the golf course where we see a lot of old men hitting small white balls hard and  young men carrying the old men's clubs tediously. I have never understood this game. Like many other games that simply killed time for the rich and powerful golf too appear to me as a sheer waste of time. But someone who enjoys a game and someone who watches it without knowing it's rules and points from outside the fence and net the game should be felt differently. I have walked the same sidewalk many times in my various visits in the city. Surprisingly I find out that I have stayed in almost all the hotels in the area. As we walk further we come across the CKP and the artists Sujith SN and Mahesh Baliga walking towards the building from the other side. We wave at each other but I am not sure whether they are waving at me also or exclusively at Shibu for I am not an official guest here which Shibu is as they are. I know both of them as they had started their artistic career professionally in the shows curated by me between 2006 and 2009. 

Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath
Shibu hardly attends camps as his temperament as a person and as an artist does not suit to the general boisterousness of the art camps where artists prefer to do a lot of merry making than doing real work. In fact art camps are good relief for artists from their regular studio practices and family situations. And most of the camp organisers do not ask artists to work in the camp because everyone knows that creativity cannot be productively used or manipulated within the stipulations of art camps. Most of the organisers encourage the participating artists either to relax and enjoy or help them travel to important and historically relevant places in and around the camp site. Camps are also occasions for the artists living in different places to catch up with their contemporaries working from elsewhere. Camps if used positively are such platforms where artists could mix up in real time. But all the artists do not have camp tolerance- they prefer to be aloof. Shibu is one such artist and hardly go for camps therefore his rare appearance has been seen with much excitement and anticipation. Besides the news of him driving down to Bangalore seems to have  been discussed already by the other artists. I could see it in the face of Sujith and Mahesh. When we reached the dining hall of the hotel for the multi course complimentary buffet breakfast some other camp participants have already been there. Shibu exchanged pleasantries with all of them and I noticed one of them pretending not to have seen me. I went upto him and said hello. With practiced expression on his face he said he was surprised to see me there. 

Johny ML  - extreme right
Though I am not supposed to go to the camp site which lay spread in the CKP galleries I accompany Shibu and meet the other camp participants; Abir Karmakar, Prashant Sahu, Sunoj D, Reji KP, T.V.Santhosh, Manjunath Kamath, G.R.Iranna, Sarat Kulagatti, Devaraj and so on. As the organisers have already told the artists that though their works would go to the permanent collection of the CKP museum they want to make the camp beneficial to the students of the CKP fine arts college. So they expect the artists to work in situ and inspire the students. I see most of the artists working quite diligently with their own mediums and engaging with the students and visitors. As many artists work in the same location with a lot of walking ins and outs (though the organisers have made public hours only after 2 pm) the works well into the fourth day of the camp still look half finished or haphazardly finished. Soon I am told that almost all the artists would get these half done works back to their studios and would return a finished work to the organisers from their studios. As it is for the permanent collection of the forthcoming CKP Museum everyone wants to give a good work though the remuneration is comparatively less. 

Shibu does not want to paint in the gallery. At the same time he does not want to deprive the students a chance to see him working on canvas: so he derives a compromise formula- he would work from the hotel room, later he would speak to the students in their classrooms and would give a live demonstration if need be besides doing the illustrated lecture for the general public which he has already agreed upon. The organisers are happy to go by Shibu's suggestion. They give him a canvas and he collects the colours that he needs. As it is natural with the camps many friends come by to say hello to Shibu and they are all surprised to know that it is Shibu's first visit to Bangalore. They all welcome him with a great warmth. They are not surprised to meet me for they have been seeing me around since 2010 when I had come for a seminar at CKP itself. There has been no looking back ever since and I find it quite karmic. My first visit to Bangalore was in 1990, twenty seven years back and I was with my college friends and the pack was led by Ajayaraj. The purpose of my visit then was to wear a jacket, drink beer from pubs, eat corn and experience unbridled youthfulness away from home. Then I came back to the city several times after two decades. I look at the galleries where the artists work. It is here in these galleries a year back I had curated one of the biggest shows that the city has ever seen: It's Big was the show and the artist's were from the Po10ntial group that operates from Mumbai. Galleries when used for working purpose look differently from what they are in the context of an exhibition; in a show they look like brides and otherwise tired housewives devoid of all decorations.

There is party tonight. But we are not going. We are not going because both Shibu and myself do not drink or smoke. The socialising has already been done in the day time. Now what we need is some sleep. But when Shibu and myself are together we do not sleep that quickly; we have a lot to talk, about art, about people and about life in general. But tonight Shibu talks only about the work he is going to do. He needs a model. He needs something to work on. He is faintly restless but contains it. Soon a city friend calls me up. He is in the party. Why we are not there, he asks. I tell him that we are too tired to attend a party. He says we should make it for his house party next day; I promise. We go down to the car to pick up something for Shibu's work. We see the bottles of unconsumed toddy. Shibu asks me to keep it somewhere outside in the darkness. We are not going to use it anyway. Nor do we know any potential users of it there. So I keep them near the back tyre of the car, beside another car so that it is partially visible. As we move away from the car a young man walk upto us and asks where we are from. We say, Kerala. "Want woman? I have models with me. Good choice." We are shocked as we are not anywhere near a seedy place where we could expect an offer like that. "No," we give him a curt answer and walk off. He recedes into darkness; we into the hotel lobby, towards the lift and to a balmy sleep.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Rajapalayam Dogs and Srivilliputhur Gods: The Journey 4

Sun is really hot in this part of the world. Miles after miles one sees nothing but the glassy planes that reflect sun light. It's just February end. The summer has not yet come in officially but it is pre-summer heat assuring the people a really hot summer ahead. Tamil Nadu has been under the grip of political heat for the last five months. When we visited Brihadeswara temple, Tanjaore last time in October 2016 we had felt the heat of politics very close to our skin. We were staying in the guest house of Tamil Nadu Tourism Department as it was located close to the temple; we could go for the early morning prayers from there. Tanjaore is known as the rice storage of Tamil Nadu. We could see the lush green fields on either side of the road.  A contrasting visual had just come up in mind. In Kerala all along the roads where the concrete jungles ended and the suburbs began one could see depleting rice fields with their visuals being blocked by huge hoardings that advertised housing complexes, jewellery, burqa and motor vehicles. Now a days one could see the hoardings that educational institutions that sold degrees for an exorbitant price. But in Tanjaore fields there were no hoardings to be seen for good. However whenever we hit the town roads we saw flex boards of varying sizes, all of which having the domineering face of the then chief minister Jayalalitha. What we noticed then was the standardised image of the chief minister; she was shown wearing a green sari and matching blouse, plump face and a slightly sagging double chin. She was looking neither young nor too old. And she was in the Apollo hospitals, Chennai from where she would never come back to office. Her death would change the course of Tamil Nadu's political history and we were yet to witness all those.

Some commotion was happening just outside our room. We were getting ready to go out for the evening prayers. Upon coming out of the room we saw a sea of footwear just at our doorstep. The origin of that sea of leather and rubber was the next door which we thought was housing more people than a mini stadium would contain at that moment. We were looking for our sandals. Soon the next door opened and a wave of dark men clad in white starched dhotis and shirts came out. Some of them looked like leaders and some of them looked like followers. The most interesting yet eerie part of the scene was that most of them were neither leaders nor followers but young men looking like thugs and plunderers capable enough to do anything for the leaders. The sea of humanity filled the corridor and we stood at the shore watching the spectacle silently. We knew that Jayalalitha was in hospital and all of them were either from the ruling AIDMK or the opposition DMK who were deciding their next political move if the worst had happened. Sooner than later, from the black and red flags fitted on the innumerable vehicles that had been haphazardly parked in the compound we understood that they were from the ruling party. Suddenly we panicked; we thought something had happened to Jayalalitha. Tamil Nadu has its worst history of vandalism and self immolation at the moment of their beloved leaders or film stars. A few buses would be torched and shops looted; that's how they expressed their frustration. The first impulse was to leave Tamil Nadu at the earliest. But we hoped for the best and stayed on. Jayalalitha 'lived on' for another two months.

A city or town is always felt than seen. There is a sudden change that not only alerts your eyes but also the whole being. There is an methodical madness everywhere. Traffic increases and roads widen. Hoardings appear and small markets form before your eyes. Tamilians like the French had had the habit of opposing other languages; as a political ideology they opposed Hindi after Indian independence and as a proud people they extolled Tamil, one of the oldest languages in the world, to heights. They opposed English but the Hindu newspaper became the most reliable English paper published from Chennai, erstwhile Madras. So if you do not see any English boards or signage anywhere in the public space do not worry; just brace yourself up for figuring out the place with your google map, gut feeling and the rudimentary understanding of Tamil if any. Slowly we figure out the place is Rajapalayam and the district is Virudhunagar. An ancient Cantonment town established by the Rajus sent by the Vijayanagara kings to spread the influence of the kingdom towards the south. The Rajus became successful in doing so and they became the rulers of the place as well. The glory of RajapAlayam remained till the Naykar rule in the 17th century CE. 

"Have you heard of the Rajapalayam Breed of Dogs?" Shibu asks me. I look at him. Then he describes the peculiarities of the dog. "It's white in colour, has a pink nose and golden pupils," he says from the driving seat. I imagine different kinds of breeds and finally imagine a dog that suits to the descriptions given by Shibu. "This breed is very special and very costly. Because of that you don't even see a stray dog in the streets of Rajapalayam," he says. Shibu likes cars and dogs and owns them. I too like cars and dogs but I do not have any. Shibu has a dog whose name is Tinku the second. He is very friendly to me. Tinku the first was a fiercer one but had fallen to some virus and died. In my childhood we had a dog and his name was 'Kuttan'- no fancy name at all. Kuttan is a homely name. Kuttan could be a boy at your home or in the neighbourhood or a dog at your home or in the neighbourhood. If someone calls out 'kuttaa' invariably a boy and a dog would show up at the courtyard. That dog grew up with us and died one day. We never got a dog home ever since. But I have a way with the dogs. They come barking and I speak to them like a friend and they become docile. But I don't like spoilt dogs that grow up inside homes. One day I saw a dog giving a kiss to Shibu at a friend's place which he later told me that was the first dog kiss that he ever got in his life. Like Lady Macbeth he went on washing his lips for sometime. 

Dogs get their names from the enemies of their owners. Most of the Indian dogs have got names like 'johny' , 'Tipu', 'Kaisar' and so on. Names like johny, tommy etc come from the Indians' hatred for the colonising white people. When they used to treat Indians as dogs, the very same Indians retaliated symbolically by giving their dogs the names of the white masters. Dominant history demonised Tipu Sultan for being a Muslim. Though he had fought against the British and had earned the name of Mysore Tiger, the Indians tend to hate him because the history written by the British made him and his father Hyder Ali look like the enemies of the Hindus. So the Hindus name their dogs as Tipu. Naming is an ideology as well as strategy. One of the most faithful beings in the world dogs are looked down upon by human beings. They may by a dog spending a few lakh rupees but they never give them divine names. They are always called names that sound cute and less ideological these days. However the age old system of naming the dog with their enemy's name still prevails. I look up to the Wikipedia to know more about the Rajapalayam breed of dogs. They are the hound dogs, fast and strong, used in breeding Dalmatian dogs. Even in Rajapalayam the breed fell into bad times and now is almost extinct. There have been efforts to revive the breed since 1981 but the city that gave its name to the dog breed now seems to be having any even as a sample. I look for some stray dogs in the city streets and find none. Perhaps the stray dog issue could be solved if the government declares dogs as high worth creatures and naming the stray as Canine Indica straytist with national culture and mythological values every stray in the country would find a home.

Try as much as you want with all the resources that you have to reach a place to worship a god or goddess if providence does not will it to make your will realised you would never get to that place. A detour or an accident, a quarrel or a calamity could dissuade you from going there. But if the cosmic forces will to take you somewhere none or nothing could stop you from reaching there. Both Shibu and myself had never thought of visiting the Srivilliputhur Andal Temple in RajapAlayam. We drive by and suddenly there comes up a temple gopuram in the sky sending signals to us. But we incline to neglect it as we take a right turn. We are not looking for a god here but a lemon. Two bottles of palm toddy are in our Murugan the Gurkha. To drink it we need to get a piece of lemon to squeeze it in. Before we could say lemon or look for a shop that sells it there comes up a signage that tells us Srivilliputhur Andal Temple or Srivilliputhur Deva Desam temple. The pull is so strong and we park the car and get out into the hot street. The young man in the shop where we park the car is so helpful that he tells us that it is his responsibility to make sure that none touches the car.

We walk towards the temple as its history unveils itself to us. Andal was an 8th century Saint and poet who is said to be the consort of Lord Vishnu. This is a Vaishnava temple. Periyalwar, one of the saints who lived here was wishing to have a daughter and one day he found a baby girl under the basil tree. He adopts her and  names her Andal; as she grows up she becomes a staunch devotee of Vishnu, Ranganatha. Andal one day worships Vishnu by garlanding the idol with the basil garland that she is wearing. Seeing this periyalwar gets upset and chides her. In his dream Vishnu appears and says that he likes the garland that Andal wears and the worship should be done so henceforth. Andal is said to have married Ranganath here and dissolved in him. Srivilliputhur temple is a two in one temple with the idols of both Andal and vatapathra shayin Vishnu. Created by Pandya kings this temple gopuram is the tallest one with 196 feet vimana. The picture of it is used by the Tamil Nadu government as its official emblem. Till 17th century CE the glory of the temple remained high and there was an attack on the temple by a Muslim chieftain. During the British period interestingly the administration of the temple was given to the king of Travancore.

We reach the sanctum sanctorum of the Andal Temple. A marriage is on. As it is the place where Andal got married to Vishnu most of the marriages are blessed here. We stand there praying, surprisingly I realise that my prayer is all for the well being of the couple who have just got married. The girl looks beautiful and the boy elated. The garbha gruha throbs with the mangala Dhwani; auspicious music played live by traditional musicians using takil and nadaswaram. We come out. There just outside the mandapam there is a flex board that announces the marriage that has been held just now. The bridegroom is Sathiamoorthy MCA and the bride is Sangeethavalli MA BEd. In an adjacent hall a grand feast is getting ready. We could smell the mouthwatering fragrance of the freshly cooked foods. 

We walk back. The vendors call out at us to come and get some souvenirs. Flower sellers here sell more leaves than flowers. Andal was found under a basil tree. And she worshipped Vishnu with basil flowers. So a true devotee should buy some basil leaves garland and give it to the priest. We find it sheer waste of plants. But temples are economic centres too. There is a parallel economy there. The woman who has asked us to keep our footwear for us sulks as we refuse to buy basil garlands and sweets from her. She refuses to take money. What makes this temple town interesting is the presence of young girls in saris who 'woman' all the shops that sell temple related stuff including sweets and prasadam. Unlike other vendors they do not shout and entice you. These mini versions of Andal stand and look at you dispassionately. In fact we don't need anything from the shops. But we take their faces and gaze with us. Lo.. there is a shop finally showing some lemons. We go there buy one and get it cut. Back in car I squeeze half a lemon into one bottle and shake it up well. Then I take a sip. A strange taste passes through my food pipe. I trace it in my mind. It settles. My stomach has accepted it. I take one more sip and hand the bottle over to Shibu. He too takes two sips ritualistically. Suddenly we imagine Bangalore really close to us even though it is a good 350 kilometres away from where we are now. The red Indian G Wagon ambles back on the hot asphalt road from the sidewalk. The road heaves a sigh along its undulations.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Tenkasi and Lemon: The Journey 3

The destination now is Bangalore. A month back Shibu had agreed to the management of the Chitra Kala Parishath, Karnataka, functioning from Bangalore to go there for an illustrated lecture as a part of an artists' camp to be held in the month of February, which he thought would also fall in the same time of our road trip. So we decide to the familiar road via Tenkasi but without getting into the famous temple which we had visited a few months back. Tenkasi has one of the biggest Shiva temples in India. Established by the Pandya kings who ruled Tamil Nadu from 2nd century BCE to 17th century CE Tenkasi Viswanathar temple is said to be the South Indian abode of Shiva and visiting the temple is considered to be as auspicious as visiting uttara Kashi which is also known as Benaras or Varanasi. A year back I was planning to visit Benaras and also had done the basic reading and research prior to the visit but the idea did not materialise due to various other factors. Recently a friend of mine who is a professor in Benaras Hindu university extended an invitation to me but I said the calling had not yet come. The destiny, if you would call all what happens to your life as that had something different in store for me. My destiny was to visit dakshina Kashi first and then the northern counterpart of it that I am always looking forward to with some sort of exhilaration and anxiety.

The name Kashi for the Hindus of India as well as for those people all over the world who rever Hinduism as a world religion worth following is a name that evokes multiple senses of spirituality and spiritual deliverance. In Kashi the dead bodies burn at the ghats and the living bodies burn their excessive desires and become pure spirits. People visiting Kashi for curiosity sake and with touristic intentions could perhaps tick off one more destinations in their logbook but for a real believer the one who goes into Kashi is never the one who comes out if at all one does so. 'Going to Kashi' or '(someone) has gone to Kashi' itself an expression that underlines the person's intention to renounce the world. Going to Kashi, Hinduism says would deliver one from all sins committed so far or it would absorb one into its spirit. Even dying at Kashi is said to be a passport to heaven. Scholars who have written about Kashi say that it is not one temple that makes Kashi a holy city but innumerable temples that make a city holy. One of the former naxalites who has taken the path of spirituality, Philip M. Prasad in one the interviews says that India is a wonderful country whose centres of faith are like an underground network of termites, with one baba here and one sanyasi there the whole country has been woven into versions of the same faith; that's the beauty of Hinduism. It sounds so true when you travel through India where even in the remotest of place one would see a temple and a baba who has perhaps nothing to do with the temple. 

In Tenkasi, in front of the Rajagopuram Shibu and myself had stood in awe. The morning was still not busy though devotees from different places had already come to the vicinity of the temple. We entered the temple and didn't know that it was just a beginning and it would take us many other temples in the country which had already created the invisible net work of a culture that stands like monolith despite all the intrinsic differences and counter ideological movements. The idol in there is a lingam, the iconic and emblematic representation of lord Shiva. In many a temple in India the Shiva idols are left in its primal symbolism. The priests do not add a face or thripundram (three horizontal lines with holy ash, Vibhuti). Nor do they add a third eye right in the middle of three lines. The naked lingam which often of granite sits safely on a vulva like form with a downward curve at one end. It is the perfect symbol of the unification of Shiva and Shakti, Purusha and Prakriti, Yin and Yang, Word and Meaning, the doer and the deed. When the dancer and the dancer become one there happens nothing but prayer, says Tagore in his play, Natir Puja. In Shiva lingam we see this perfect union; it's a prayer.

In this trip we do not want to go to the temple again. Our idea is to cross the city as early as possible so that we could cover a major distance by evening and could settle for the night before we reach Bangalore. Shibu has already geared up his Force Gurkha with an inflatable bed, fans, additional battery and so for a night stay in the car. It is his standing wish to spend at least five years in the vehicle, visiting places and paint from live models and places. Hence we are very thrilled to start our night stay in the car. However we want to reach as close to Bangalore so that by next morning we could resume our journey by empty roads. Somehow, as we pass by the holy city of Tenkasi I just could not stop thinking about our last visit. After coming out of the temple I had to take a leak and was looking for a public comfort station and sooner than later I found one. To my dismay I found the gates to the urinal locked. I asked a person standing nearby. Without giving any damn to my growing discomfort the person said that the janitor had gone on leave that day and he did not see a chance of the urinal functioning that day. An important temple with thousands of male and female devotees visiting it a day has only one comfort station in its vicinity which is under lock and key. Finally I went by the Indian male way; urinating in the roadside. Not so comfortable with this I went looking for a suitable cover and after roaming around for a full ten minutes found a partial cover which exposed only my awkward profile to the world and I did it only to raise my head in all relief and see the board of a local magistrate court! But in Indian legal system with a snail's pace and laxity would take at least a few years to punish me even if I had been caught doing an inescapable offence! 

We are now in the road that leads towards Bangalore and we have to cut at least six districts to reach the Karnataka border. By nine in the morning we stop at a wayside shop to have a cup of tea. A few villagers sit on bench reading newspapers. We look at the papers and find one of the latest political dramas covered in detail with pictures. Sasikala/Chinnamma was asked to surrender before a court in Karnataka by the Supreme Court of India and she had gone to the memorial shrine of Jayalalitha/Amma to seek permission and pray. Sasikala did something very peculiar there in the shrine at the Marina Beach; she slapped the marble slab thrice with a strange emotion sweeping over her face. Her act had sent the whole of India talking about it. The Hindu newspaper said that the slapping was an old time practice called 'vanchitam cheyven' (I will take revenge) which was prevalent in Chera kingdom. Many theories were discussed hence we too were curious about it. What's it all about, I ask the newspaper readers. They say it is about Chinnamma's act. They sound scornful and full of hate for her. What did she say while slapping the slab? I press on. The villagers seem to be not really literate. "I could read only big letters," one of them says. We try to make sense out of the pictures once again but in vain. One thing is sure: you find hardly any supporters of Sasikala. They want their Amma back not Chinnamma. 

It is time to meet a happy couple. Shibu tells me about the palm toddy that he had tasted in one of his trips along the same route a couple of years back. He vaguely remembers the place and luckily the vagueness vanishes and clarity comes in. He presses the break pedal exactly the place where he had once bought a bottle of palm toddy. A couple whose age could be anything between thirty and forty wait with their wares there on the road side. We cross the road and as Shibu exchanges pleasantries with the couple I look on. The man is strong and his muscled body is only clad with a pair of shorts. He has the tapping equipments fitted to his modest two wheeler. They have a few bottles (two litres each) of toddy with them and we buy two bottles. I am a bit skeptical about driving after drinking this. Shibu assures me that it is not intoxicating at all but it has good taste. The man and woman tell us in unison to add some lemon juice in it before we drink it. "We put choona (lime) around the palm shoots to ward off the insects and other creatures. Adding lemon would neutralise the effect of the choona otherwise it could give a burning feeling." 

We take some photographs and go back to the car. We need to get some lemon before we drink it. Both of us had left drinking and smoking long back. This is just an experiment and now to experience it we need to get a piece of lemon. Corona beer does not have choona in it but people drink it adding a piece of lemon. Rum drinkers suggest that a piece of lemon in it could do wonders. Many cocktails taste good only because of lemon and mint. Coconut toddy and many other alcoholic drinks are consumed with lemon pickle for a lick now and then. Here we need a piece of lemon to neutralise the calcium carbonate content in the toddy. Though our destination is Bangalore for the time being our destination seems to be a shop where we get a lemon and in the sweltering Tamil Nadu as if in magic all the wayside shops seem to have vanished into thin air leaving no trace of that yellow fruit called lemon.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Story of the Hills: The Journey 2

Driving uphill is always a refreshing experience; hills and valleys in Kerala look like cradles of ancient trees, thickets, shrubs and creepers. They refuse to leave the safety that Mother Earth gives them. Still the thickness of woods that had once made people call them forests and the black boulders jutting out from them at a distance elephants has already thinned by greedy human interventions. This place is called Thenmala, one of the eastern mountain ranges that separate Kerala from  Tamil Nadu. We take this route for two reasons; one, we had already taken this route on two previous other occasions and two, from our town, Attingal this is the closest route to border. Shibu is at the wheel and from his right sun rays seep through the foliages and we feel refreshed. The sensation of receiving cool sun rays in the morning is quite unsettling an experience especially when there is a cold wind swirling around and at times making a rash passage through our half rolled down window panes. Sun shines our dark skins as it does the millions of leaves around us happily attached to the trees; I remember one of my articles written in 2015, describing leaves in a park as a thousand natural solar panels. 

Along the way to Thenkashi (South Kashi), one of the prominent abodes of Lord Shiva, we also see the drying up springs up there in the hills leaving white patches along the total height of the rocks as if the three dimensional water falls have been now turned to two dimensional paintings that create an uncanny backdrop for the die hard lushness of the forest cover. Same is the case with the small rivulets in the valleys; they too have gone dry. Kerala in the recent past has been undergoing an unprecedented heat wave and drought situation though the government has not officially declared the state to be a drought affected one. "Do you remember those films shot here?" I ask Shibu. Without taking eyes off from the winding road ahead Shibu smiles and nods his head. That smile sums it all. In 1980s when Malayalam film industry was going through a crisis a set of film makers decided to make some quick bucks by producing certain quick movies with a heroine who was willing to go nude on screen (often they hailed from other states to protect the modesty of Malayali women)  and some out of work heroes with stories moving around a romance between a forest girl and a city boy or vice versa. All those films were shot in these forests, hills and valleys. Most of those films could generate a lot of money as the Malayali males were desperate for gazing at the naked bodies of some fat women who kept on taking bath in the streams or wandering in the forest trails looking for some fun until she was shaken upto reality by a rape attempt and the subsequent rescuing of her by an urban hero and the eventual endless love making between them. Sooner than later these films had given way to much bolder pornographic renditions with the arrival of the video tapes and video cassette players.

Both of us, as a part of our growing up had gone through those kinds of films before graduating ourselves into art house movies and the finer renditions of human bodies and relationships depicted in the classical movies. As we drive along we pay silent tribute to those film crews that dared the adverse climates to film those hopeless movies just to keep the audience as well as the producers entertained with different outcomes. "It's time for a cup of tea," Shibu tells me and at the next way side tea shop he pulls 'Murugan' over. We jump out of it and feel the nip in the air. The tea shop from where we have tea is one of the fast dying breeds of shops with the arrival of the branded tea and coffee shops. In this shop we see three 'virakaduppu' (stoves run on fire wood) and in all three there are pots boiling water, milk and tea respectively. A boy in his early teens with baby fat still refusing to go from his cheeks, stomach and forearms looks after the shop while a woman in her thirties make tea for us. There are couple of local elders sitting on the bench more for self entertainment of talking to people than having tea. Soon we come to know that both the boy and woman are bad at calculating as who ever present in the shop together act to give us a kilogram of banana and then take money from us. 

At some point the road narrows down and across the road we see an old time bridge getting repaired. This is one of the key railway bridges built by the British and was decommissioned a few years back citing the weakening support. The bridge went into a tunnel and the narrow gauge railway line that ran over the bridge was one important railway link between Kollam and Senkottai in Tamil Nadu. One of the heritage lines in India, this line after a few years of its closure is said to be revived soon for making it tourism friendly than for commutation purposes. The renovation of the bridge with its ten huge arches has caused the narrowing of the road and the people who drive in this way seem to respect stillness of the forest around. None hunks horns. Traffic is smooth. We are happy but suddenly at the next turn we see a crushed white car a few feet down towards the valley lying tilted against an ancient tree. It looks as if the car was flown over the ledge after the collision with another speeding vehicle and landed at the foot of a tree preventing its further rolling down into the gorge. A few kilometres further up where the road forks into East and north west we see a huge charred truck with its hay load completely burnt down with smoke emitting from the embers still. 

Shibu reminds me of our breakfast. I am at the wheel and I know the place where we are going to have our breakfast. Exactly at the same point where we had parked the vehicle in our last visit, I pull it over and park. We go into the shop. When we are together, I tend to do almost all what Shibu does except painting. If he wears a cap I too take out mine. If he wears his shades, I follow the suit. Like two identical beings we walk into the small restaurant which in fact is run by two identical old men; one sits at the counter and the other doing the errands. Then we see two identical guys walking in. We have already started eating out identical breakfast; three appams each and two bowls of vegetables. The guys who have just seated at the next table ask the old man whether he got beef fry to go with appams. I look at my watch and then at Shibu who interestingly has done the same. It's 8.15 am. Only Malayalis could ask for beef in the morning. The old man with a naked upper torso answers in negative. The guys finally settles for appam and duck egg curry. A sleepy family walks in. This is the last post in Kerala. "Eat well," Shibu tells me, "because we are not going to get this for many days to come." We eat with relish. Out there the hill has just ended and the plain has started. Shibu takes the wheel and myself the navigator's seat. We feel that we had done the same trip together centuries back, perhaps by a bullock cart.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Reality as Experience in Heart: The Journey 1

Where do all journeys begin? Where do they end? Questions like these occur in us often only to be curbed by the waves of other thoughts coming forcefully to the shore of existence leaving traces of the ephemeral as they recede, as if they were the misshapen wetness caused by the restless waves of an endless ocean. Also we do ask very rarely about the timing of journey; when exactly do we start our journey? Even if we are always on the move, controlled by the temporality of time consciousness and frightened by the immensity of the unknown we rush back to the safety nests that we have created at the places of origin and heave a sigh of relief. But somewhere at some point of time one has to burn the original nest and commence that uncharted journey without even the idea of seeking anything including deliverance. It is the journey that sets one free from including the idea of freedom itself.

Our, mine and the artist Shibu Natesan's journey together had started long ago. Blessed by fate or chance we happened to be born in the same family thanks to the cross marriages between a brother-sister duo with another brother-sister duo. We grew up together, sharing same ideas and attitudes, at times even clothes. While Shibu was born with this exceptional talent to paint I had realised at an early age itself that I was inclined to words. Physical distance grew between us as we were growing up and luckily we could get back together as my writing took a turn towards art history. We had our share of differences and lows in mutual relationship only to come back together again with so much force and vigour. We started travelling together in 2014 and our first trip together was to Thiruvannamaly (I have written nine chapters about that journey and you could find it in my blog). Our second trip together was undertaken in 2016 and it lasted for only ten days. I was having a spiritual crisis at that time and was largely sceptical about things. The deliberate attempts to curb and resist my fairly large studies on/of Hindu philosophy were proving an huge impediment in accepting Shibu's spiritual guidance and that journey nearly brought us to blows and regular shouting matches. The fight peaked when I objected to pray before the idol of Shiva at the Brihadeswara temple in Tanjaore.

Then the miracle happened: at the wheel of the mighty off-roader vehicle, Gurkha from the Force motors, I saw Shiva. It was not Shibu Natesan who was driving; it was Shiva himself. The ego that had stopped me from folding my palms and praying before the Shiva idol broke then and there. Silent tears were rolling down from my eyes. All what I have been learning and studying since my childhood went through an alchemical process; knowledge became awareness. Lead turned into gold. Lord Shiva showed me the way. Things became extremely clear and my perspective of life changed. We returned to the base as bad blood had developed between us; through out the drive back we were silent. But both of us were changed beings. 

I went back to Delhi and Shibu to London. At some point while talking to each other from two different continents we confessed mutually the transformation that we had gone through during that journey and I realised that he too was going through a spiritual crisis then and he had seen his deliverance in me. What changed in us during that journey was not just a change in our ego levels; it also changed our own selves unprecedentedly. We knew that with different kinds of life in two different places it was impossible for us to undertake regular trips. As a genuine traveller Shibu had travelled a lot by air and by road already. The new purchase that he made of the Gurkha was to undertake longer off-road journeys and paint from nature and life. He had almost decided to live in the vehicle for a longer period. With my new existential evolution I expressed my wish to travel with Shibu in his expeditions and the request was immediately granted as he told me that being (half) brothers we did not need to 'know' each other as we already know each other; we know our strength and weakness that makes our differences less bitter and short lived. With the sea change that had happened to us in 2016, we realised that we made perfect travelling partners. 

When Shibu was away in London, my writing took a different turn; a turning that nobody including the people near around me had expected. I started writing poems in my mother tongue, Malayalam. The poems came mostly in old rhyming verses and a majority of them turned out to be prayers to Shiva. I did not know I knew so much of Malayalam words though I had already been a fairly known Malayalam writer. Some people did not like this as much as I did not like their free verse. They thought I went retro in approach and thought that it was an indication of me slowly turning into a linguistic fundamentalist. Soon it was followed by an allegation of myself becoming a Hindu religious fundamentalist too. This allegation was triggered by my newly acquired identity as Swami Aksharananda. I had started my religious writings in May 2016 in a blog titled ' Aksharananda Speaks'. With my personal transformation I started writing more vigorously in this blog and felt a very strong urge to do away with my name JohnyML and become Swami Aksharananda. 

My world view as well as religious perspectives had changed by then. All what I had learned about Hinduism and the immense readings ever since (basically done to oppose Hindu fundamentalism) went into another alchemical change and I became very clear about my religious views. But for any other person who has been reading me for a long time it was too huge and quick a change difficult to comprehend. Even my mother couldn't understand what was happening. Talking about Hindu or Hinduism is seen as retrogressive in this country. So people started calling me a new convert and a Hindu fundamentalist. But I have no worries about it. The most important thing happened to me is regarding my understanding of art history and art in general. Along with other clarity my art historical perspective also turned and became clear and different. Today I just need to look at a work of art to know its history. Beyond any canonical readings I could see the depth and meaning of it. 

My conversations with Shibu continued but now the focus our conversations was different. We talked of the fundamental needs of all beings and how everyone was capable of having what one needed as the nature was immensely rich. We also realised that what we knew was very little and that little was the major problem towards awareness. Soon we recognised that our art was limited because our art scene functioned on what was known and what was knowable. It was incapable of knowing the unknown and the unknowable. To reach the unknowable one should do away with the tools of knowing and get a different set of tools and skills; of experience. We can only experience the unknowable. The unknowable cannot be known through the traditional tools of knowing. Experiencing is nothing but the non-different existence of the experiencer from the experience. It could be conveyed only by the subtle forms of art and writing if at all they are to be communicated. We decided to travel together to become one with the experience and that of the land, this vast country, the world and the universe. 

For many it may look very exotic but for us it is not exotic at all; on the contrary it is real to us in the philosophical sense. What is experienced in the heart is real for every human being. What is experienced in thoughts is the world and it ends when the thoughts end. But the experience in the heart never ends because heart (not the organ but the seed of existence) is a part of the universe which is nothing but the whole. So this journey that we are doing is to experience the real which perhaps could be seen as extravagant by many. Both of us do not have any particular idea about seeking anything. We are permanently high on the enthusiasm towards the life that we are living with this journey or otherwise. Shibu breaths painting and myself writing. In our teenage itself we had realised it and never wavered from our paths though practical life has showed us many different ways of surviving. 

"I will paint," Shibu had told me a month before we planned this trip. "I will write," I had said. The difference is that a painter needs a lot of things; canvas, easel, paints, brush, sketch pads, chairs, tables and what not. "I have arranged everything," shibu told me. "This time we are even going to cook," he told me. Then the day finally comes. On 16th February 2017 we start early in the morning. On the previous day we were busy packing the Gurkha who has a name ' Murugan' with painting equipments, cooking pots, hot plate, inverter, foldable chairs and tables. We even have an inflatable bed. "Pack your things now," Shibu tells me. "I am," and I keep my bag with some clothes and a pair of jogging shoes. "Where are your writing stuff?" Shibu asks me. I show him a dairy and a pen, and this phone. Makers of images need a lot to make an image but a writer now needs a smart phone and a 4G SIM card. We smile at each other. Murugan revs up. Now he is climbing the Thenmala hills. Behind them the sun has just come up.