Friday, March 30, 2012
From the window of that aircraft I looked out with a pair of eyes which seemed to have forgotten the concept of sleep. How many hours had I been looking out of that window? I wanted to ask the person who was sitting next to me. I did not know him. Nor did he know me. Now he was sleeping. Had I seen him at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi? No idea. How I could have noticed him or anybody else in that sense? Had I not been in an ecstatic mood? Or was I delirious due to anxiety? Mrinal had come to drop me at the airport. She had asked me several times whether my traveller’s cheques and passport were in place. I had nodded like a meek child. I knew that I was leaving her alone in Delhi for a year and I did not know what was going to happen to me once I reach London. It was my first trip abroad and I was seriously anxious.
Out there it was a vast expanse of molten bronze which I had seen a few days before at Aaya Nagar, where K.S.Radhakrishnan’s foundry was located. One of his sculptures was getting casted. Vidhan, the trustworthy assistant of KSR was sprinkling water at the sides of the furnace and from the sizzling sound an experienced sculptor could tell whether the metal was melted enough. When KSR nodded, three of the assistants came forward to lift the crucible and pour into the mouth of the cast. I saw the molten metal flowing into the mouth of the cast gaping up from the earth. I looked at KSR and he gave me a smile of satisfaction. I had gone there to say good bye to him. I was going to London. At the age of thirty three once again I was going to be a student. I felt like bending in front of him and seeking blessings. He knew my body going down. Before I could embarrass him, he touched my shoulders and told him in his hallmark style, ‘blessings are always with the blessed.’ And his touch was full of reassurance about my blessedness.
The burnt orange hue of the sky seemed to touch the horizon where I could see a peculiar blue that one saw at the neck of a peacock. It was glistening with a sense of sadness. I could not explain the blue to myself and I was wondering why the expression sadness came to my mind when I watched that hazy blue line of the horizon where the illusionary sea of molten bronze touched an ethereal ocean of blueness. The precarious embracing of the two had formed that illusion of horizon that looked like the neck of a peacock. My eyes ached, neck pained and something started spinning inside my head. I looked at the screen in front of me. After a few clicks of the button on the remote control fitted on the hand rest of my seat, I landed upon the channel that showed the location of the flight at that moment. It was somewhere above Europe. I started counting the countries that I had crossed during the last seven hours of flight. Now after one hour I was going to land at the famous Heathrow Airport in London.
I looked at the man who was sleeping next to me again. He smiled in his sleep. His eyes were covered with an appendage given to the travellers by the flight attendants. You could cover your eyes, ears and whichever pores possible with the stuff that the British Airways attendants give to you. They are truly multicultural when it comes to the selection of flight attendants. When I was flying there were a couple of Indian girls, a few middle aged Afro-British men and a few typical British women. While British airhostesses behaved like matrons, the Indian girls were extra polite. The Afro-British guys asked for drinks with such dignified politeness that you suppressed your desire to ask for a second round of free drinks. And I knew well that the moment the flight had taken off from the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, I did not have any choice other than obeying the orders of the flight attendants.
Before I land, I have one more hour to go. And let me take that hour to tell you what has brought me in this flight to London. I was working in Delhi as a special correspondent to the New Indian Express. I was doing a lot of freelancing also at the same time. As I was writing a lot in Malayalam, I had gained a considerable reputation back in Kerala as a new age journalist and cultural writer. But such reputations in fact did not help me to quench my thirst for a kind of spiritual satisfaction which I had been craving for ever since I chugged into the land of Delhi in 1995 along with Mrinal. Then I got the job of a senior correspondent in the Tehelka.com. I will be devoting the penultimate chapter of this series for narrating the kinds of jobs that I had done almost a decade since my arrival in Delhi. Tehelka also failed to satisfy me. I was restless always. And one fine morning in 2001 June I decided to leave Tehelka and become a full time art professional. I did not know how I was going to survive without a job. It was a hard but bold decision. However it was made easy by the fact that we did not have any children to worry about.
When I was in Kerala, for some odd reason, I had taken this vow that I would never apply for a job. Looking back, I could see that it was a very romantic decision. I was too sure about my abilities as god alone knows what. I thought I could survive by giving tuitions to semi witted kids in the village. Then I had imaged that I could become an IAS officer. There was no limit to imagination. But sending an application form for a job was the last thing I could think about. Now I feel it was out of sheer laziness and lethargy that would generally affect a young man in his early twenties. I did not want to send applications because it was a very tedious job. Then it became a habit. To make any habit politically correct and romantically feasible one should declare it as a part of one’s ideological stance in life. So I must have declared it so at that point of time in my life. Then later even during the dire circumstances I did not feel like sending out applications to get a job.
However, when some friends insisted that I should apply for the Charles Wallace India Trust scholarship, an annual grant given to potential professionals to do further studies in London, I had no reason to object. And above all it was not for a job. After all it was for a grant. To make an application for the scholarship, I made my own justification and easily deviated from my formerly declared path of abstinence from applications. I applied and there was no reply from the office. During those days, as it was the only popular scholarship after INLAKS scholarship, everyone was very keen and curious about it. People made speculations about the applications and even some of them predicted who got what kind of grants that year even before the formal declaration of the results. Hence, I applied for it. I remember there was a triplicate application format and I filled in all the columns and submitted it duly.
Those were the pre-cell phone days. But thanks to a friend of mine I had this rare chance of having an MTNL connection before I had a ration card. I should say even today I do not have a ration card in Delhi or Faridabad. This telephone story is an interesting one. I used to cover all the political parties during my term as a political correspondent with the New Indian Express. In one of my visits at the 24 Akbar Road, which is the head quarter of the Indian National Congress, I met a tall young man with a thick moustache. From no angle he looked like a Malayali. Both of us were sitting in front of the room of Oscar Fernandes, one of the secretaries of the national party. Oscar Fernandes was a very friendly man and he used to entertain correspondents like me even if we were not reporting for the big newspapers published from Delhi. The young man in Khadar clothes was also waiting for his turn to meet Oscar Fernandes. As I was looking like a hopeless Malayali, he shifted to a vacant chair next to mine and extended his hand in friendship. He told me his name and said that he was a member of the MTNL advisory committee. We chatted up and after meeting the leader, while going out, this young man caught up with me in one of the corridors in the building and asked me for my telephone number.
He was shocked to know that even after working as a special correspondent to a reputed paper published from South India, I did not have a landline connection. With studied but quick movements he opened his bag and took out a form and asked me to fill in the blanks. I put my details such as name, age, address, occupation and so on down on the paper. Within a few days guys from the MTNL came home with a landline connection and I remember the first instrument that we got from them was an olive green one. It was square in shape so we thought it was a modern one as the old ones were black in colour and round in shape. The arrival of the telephone helped me to trust that young man and we became thick friends for some time. He was an aspiring politician and he wanted my services as a journalists. When he came to know that I was not averse to give public speeches he took me to public functions and I gave some public speeches organized by the Malayali communities living in various pockets of Delhi.
The talk about the scholarship was quite thick and ripe in the air during those days. But I was not even given a receipt regarding the acceptance of my application form. Things happened through the British Council at the Kasturba Gandhi Marg near Connaught Place. People said that they called for interviews by the month of April ( I remember it was the beginning of summer). T.S.Eliot had said in his illustrious poem, Wasteland, that April was the cruellest of months. If I had really wanted to get that scholarship, then it would have been horrible month of expectation and waiting for me. But I just brushed all such ideas of getting an interview call from the British Council. I took this attitude mainly because I knew that I was a black listed person in the Delhi art scene and none would like to give me a very valuable scholarship. Another factor that dissuaded me from thinking positively about the scholarship was simple; I knew there was some kind of nepotism and favouritism as far as conferring such grants were concerned. I was not a good boy. So I was not in anybody’s favourites list. Hence as expected when many of my contemporaries were getting interview calls for their respective fields, I did not get a call from the British Council.
Mrinal and myself were planning to go somewhere. And on the previous night around eight o clock the phone rang. I picked up the receiver thinking that it would be one of the drunken friends at the other end wanting to vent his frustrations to a patient listener like me. But it was not the usual blabbering of a spirited friend. Instead, it was a sophisticated female voice and the voice told be to be present at the British Council on the next morning 10 o clock. There should have been happiness surging out of me. On the contrary I felt an uncontrollable rage. I barked at the voice asking how she could call me on the previous night of the interview. Had I been out of station, had I been out for dinner or buying vegetables or simply in the bathroom? Or had I been just outside the house and was unlocking the door before the bell died out? I threw a flurry of questions at the voice and the voice kept on saying sorry and it insisted that I should be there at the British Council.
I did not take any of my credential along with me to the British Council on the next morning. I was in a confrontational attitude and I was going to question the jury and the authorities for being so callous and indifferent to my application. At the reception lobby I saw Prima Kurien, then a gallerist and art consultant in Delhi. She was in her white sari with golden stripes. I had heard that Prima too was an applicant for the same Curatorial MA program at the Goldsmiths College and the moment I saw here there at the lobby, I made it sure that the interview was going to be a farce and the winner was already there in front of me in Prima’s shape. Prima smiled at me and I gave her a weak smile. She is a very tall woman with a very deep voice. One of the pioneering gallerists in India, it was Prima who introduced most of the internationally established artists today in the art scene. They all were strugglers of that time. Prima had a gallery at the Shahpur Jat in South Delhi. Most of the youngsters of that time used to hang out at her place as Prima loved to treat her guests with ample amount of Old Monk Rum and a never ending stream of snacks. She was a great influence on many but she was not a great entrepreneur herself. Her problem was she loved art and artists more than money. In due course, she lost out in the game. After a hiatus that lasted for almost a decade, Prima came back to the scene not only as a consultant but also as an exhibition designer. She runs a catering service from her home at Greater Kailash II and her culinary skills are known amongst the cream of Delhiites.
Prima was a friend of all and I was sure Prima would get take the scholarship away from me. I was sitting in one of the sofas in the British Council lobby and Prima came and sat next to me. “Johny, this scholarship is for you. They are offering it for a year to do a post graduation. I am not interested to go away for a year. I have a son to look after,” Prima told me. I was so surprised to see her sense of resignation. I smiled at her. I did not know what to say. She was called in first. After half an hour or so I was called in. A stream of apologies followed from Sushma Bahl who was the head of cultural affairs in the British Council that time. I looked at the people in the jury. I knew Geeta Kapur, Sanjana Kapur (theatre personality) and a senior representative of the Charles Wallace India Trust. I forgot his name (I should not have). Someone told me that I could introduce myself as they failed to locate my application forms. I was furious this time. I asked them how they could misplace my application form and then call me for the interview on the previous night. It was easy to make out that someone had already interfered to remove my name from the list of interviewees.
They all smiled at me. Sanjana Kapur asked me to introduce myself. Keeping my indignation under check, I started talking about myself. I told her that I was a blacklisted person in the Indian art criticism and I knew why my application form had been removed. Geeta Kapur asked me a few questions regarding curatorial practice as I had applied for doing a post graduation in creative curating at the Goldsmiths College, University of London. I talked a bit in detail about the kind of curatorial practice prevalent in Indian during those days and how as Baroda pass outs we had tried our best to introduce a different kind of practice in the scene of exhibition production in India. I talked about my efforts like Small but Significant, HEAT and CAN all shows with young artists and a series of slide shows and lectures at Arpana Caur’s Academy of Fine Arts and Literature in Siri Fort. Geeta Kapur knew what I had been doing all those years and she asked me one crucial question by the end of the interview session. She asked me, “What are you going to do once you come back after doing your post graduation in Creative Curating?” I did not have much to think. Without batting an eyelid I told her that I had been critiquing her and her activities all these years and I was going to continue the same with more vigour once I came back from London. She looked at me through her thick glasses, initially with some kind of shock and then with a smile. She knew my character and I knew I was not going to get the scholarship so why mince my words, that was my attitude.
After a couple of days the result came. I was selected. I knew, Geeta Kapur was the person who worked behind the scene, I was told. She was instrumental in calling me for the interview. She came to know about my application and when she was invited as the jury member she asked about the number of applicants. When she came to know that my name was not mentioned, she grew curious and insisted that I should be called for the interview. It was because of her I was called by night on the previous day of the interview. Despite my continued criticism she wanted me to get the scholarship. She was shocked to see me lashing out at her in the interview but she was matured enough to consider my rage and give me the scholarship. I express my gratitude to her for this at this moment though there was no bonding developed between us even after I came back after my studies in London. It is like that some people are not destined to work together or feel together. They are supposed to be at loggerheads with each other all the time, with or without reason. Personal chemistry must be the reason behind it. Who knows?
Sleep had absolutely left me. It was merciless and I waited for the pilot to make the announcement and finally it happened. He said we were starting the climb down then. I looked out through the window. Now the molten bronze colour had vanished. In its place I saw an endless sea of fluffy clouds. Descending where? I asked myself. I thought the aircraft was held afloat thanks to these fluffy snow white clouds. I thought I would see a few angels going out for a morning walk amongst the clouds. I trained my eyes to see something ethereal happening out there. But nothing happened during those moments that lasted for ages. Then piercing through the thicket of clouds our flight descended to a hazy space. It was almost like opening a fairy tale book with deceiving cover. It was like a fairy tale. Right down there I saw chimneys and brick buildings. The plane glided right to left and then the other way round giving me sights of the landscape below from different perspectives. I was thrilled to see things what I had seen only in the picture books and television. The buildings and the surrounding greenery looked exactly like the fairy tale illustrations. I thought a fox would come out now to catch a young girl who was going to meet her grandmother through a small wood. I imagined all those Grimm Brothers’ stories getting acted out down there.
I was more or less like a somnambulist once I got down at the Heathrow airport, though sleep was the last thing to walk with me. The airport was the biggest one I had ever seen in my life. I saw hoards of flights parked along the bay. I collected my baggage and the Mr.Taylor of the Charles Wallace Trust India had clear instructions about how the airport in London worked. Also the Goldsmiths College authorities have been in touch with me over continuous posts and emails. They had even sent me the hostel accommodation details, first day party passes at the college pub and everything. I bought a ticket for the New Cross Station (underground metro line) and got into a train as instructed by one of the airport attendants. There is an integrated system at the airports in London. Not only the airport is connected with the rail systems but also the officials are informed of the students, visitors and tourists. They know how to behave properly to people according to their needs and mental state. They all were helpful to me. The train reached New Cross station around ten thirty in the morning. I hauled my luggage and came out of the station. The map told me exactly where the college was. I walked towards my future, my destination for a year.
Goldsmiths College has a pretty big campus and on the road side itself one could see the huge library building. Out there along the streets one could see a city hall, a punk’s shop, a few pubs, a couple of eateries, some food stores, some corner shops, a series of other business establishments, a super store and a community centre where anybody could walk in to read a book or listen some music. While walking towards the college I had my first cultural shock from London. I saw a group of young black and white men working at the roadside. They were mending some underground wiring system or something. A guy who was digging the pavement suddenly stopped shovelling earth and took out a mobile phone from his pocket and started talking. Another mobile was hanging from a pouch from his waist belt. It was really a shock for me mainly because back in India only a very few people had mobile phone at that time. K.S.Radhakrishnan was one of the first few people in the art scene who possessed a mobile phone. It was a Nokia handset which almost sized and weighed up to a brick. Sumedh Rajendran was the other amongst the young artists who flaunted a mobile phone. The working class never had a mobile in India. Here I was seeing the road workers with mobile phones in their hands.
Peter was a young white boy in his early twenties. Though he was white he had waist long dreadlocks. As I was walking with a confused look in my eyes, he walked up to me and said he was Peter and was a students’ union chairman of the Goldsmiths College. He asked me whether I needed any help. I told him that I was facing problem to find the office. He took me there. I was humbled by his act of taking my trolley bag away from me and rolling it all the way to the office, walking and chatting up with me as if we were friends for a long time. The office people were helpful. They did the formalities in no time and handed over the key of the hostel in my hands. The hostel was right across the road and was called Batavia Muse. Batavia Muse was a series of buildings on the first and second floors opening from behind the main street. I got into one of the Batavia Muse buildings and put my luggage in the room number allotted to me. I came out after keeping my luggage. Suddenly I felt I forgot something in the room. I tried to open it and it was not opening. All my travel documents, money and everything were inside the room and now I was standing out with a key which was useless for the time being. I rushed to the college office across the road and an assistant came with me to see whether something had seriously gone wrong with this student from India. And with a wide grin he informed me that the problem was that I was in Batavia Muse but building number one. So I was in the right number in a wrong section. He used his spare keys to open the room. I took out my luggage and we walked to the next building and it was the right section with the right room number.
There were six inmates in a hostel. I had one Indian girl who was trying to be more British than the British themselves. One Lee from Korea, another guy from Japan, Sam from another part of Britain and Greg from the US. Sam always had a Brazilian or Colombian girl friend with him so he was always busy. Greg took interest in watching television in the common kitchen located at the top floor of the building where we all congregated to make our breakfast and dinner. Lee and the Japan guy were always fighting; they had various reasons to fight as silly as a fart to as grave as nuclear arsenals possessed by their respective countries. One day police visited our hostel because the Japanese guy had called the Police as he could not stand Lee farting from the next room. As I was the eldest amongst (or was I younger to Lee) group, they all respected and loved me. Above all I was the only one who was cooking regularly and at times I used to invite them to have a bite from my food. They liked my cooking.
It was not just my hostel mates who liked my cooking. All my classmates liked my cooking. Before I get into that let me tell to you how lucky and unlucky I was at the Goldsmiths from the very first day. After freshening up myself (sleep was still a stranger to me) I decided to go for a walk. It was the month of September and according to me it was very cold. Apart from a couple of coats, Radhakrishan had given me a red sweat shirt. Like any other time I was wearing only blue jeans. I went out in my blue jeans and red shirt, surveyed the area, came back and waited for the night to fall so that I could meet others at the college pub. By evening I took out differently coloured coupons sent to me by the college and went to the pub. For the pink slip, the first drink was free. And for the yellow slip it was half rate and third drink was to be bought by my own money. I had not changed my travellers’ cheques into cash. A few pounds were there in my pocket and I did not want to spend that on drinks as I was depending my life on those few notes till I got my travellers’ cheques encashed. However, I could not resist the temptation to smoke. Peter came around and tapped on my shoulders. I mustered up all my courage, walked up to the counter and bought a packet of cigarette and it had dented my pocket completely.
To add insult to injury, a beautiful girl came around and offered something in a wicker basket. The basket was filled with toffees and condoms. I picked up both. The grip was so wide and strong the number of condoms was more than the number of toffees came into my hand. Now I was in a dilemma. I asked whether it was an invitation for a night of frolicking or a just a warning. I could not make out anything. A couple of girls befriended me and they turned out to be my would be classmates. After a couple of hours, hanging out there without hope I walked back to the hostel thinking how I was going to use these condoms. The moment I fell on the bed I was asleep. I knew sleep was hiding in the room like a thug. It hit me from behind and I was dead sleep on the bed on the next moment.
I was and am an early riser. I cannot extend my sleep beyond five o clock in the morning. Though my body clock was not yet adjusted to the time of London, I got up five o clock in the morning. I looked out of the window that opened above the street down there. Across the street I could see my college. That was the day of my enrolment. On the opposite side there was the town hall of New Cross. The thugs of yester years now rechristened as explorers and founding fathers of colonialism stood in their regalia as frozen sculptures. The huge tower clock was like an eye ever present in my life during all those three hundred and sixty five days. I went out for a walk. Came back. The time was lying vacant before me. I went into the bathroom and wanted to have a shower. There was a huge bath tub. It was very difficult for me to waste such a huge amount of water. Initially I resisted taking bath in the tub. Slowly I got used to it. Whenever I felt tired and frustrated I filled lukewarm water in the tub and lied inside it for endless hours. So was the case with washing machines. There was a college laundry. One could put pound coins and get the stuff washed and dried. My first experiment with the washing machine that worked only on bribing with pound coins was disastrous. The machine ate away my five pounds and never after that, I tried to wash my clothes in a machine. I washed my clothes in that tiny bathroom of my hostel room and dried the clothes at my window for the whole year. Later I came to know that washing clothes in the room was a legal offence. Perhaps, it was my sweet revenge against colonialism.
I was lucky to have fifteen girls from all over the world as my classmates. I don’t remember all the names. My only male classmate was Mathieu Copeland from France. He did not come to the class quite regularly. He was already an established artist there or he thought so. He had outlandish ideas about art and curatorial practice. He spoke in a very French accent and I never understood a bit of what he said. So it was difficult to develop friendship with him. Naturally, girls became my friends. They were comfortable with me because they considered me like an older brother. Julia Hoener from Germany was my closest friend. Yoshiko Nagain comes second in the list. Then Zoe Gray. There was Ceclia, Lucia and so on. I remember all their faces. But I don’t remember their names. Julia was my best friend and she liked me a lot. Her boy friend visited her from Germany once in a while and they used to have terrible fights. Whenever Julia got frustrated she called me to go for a ride. We took day passes and got into the double deck buses. The buses took us to wherever it went. We sat on the first seat of the upper deck, often she leaning on my shoulder, shedding silent tears.
Anna Harding was our course leader. And we had Sunil Gupta as our visiting tutor. Irit Rogoff also visited us as tutor. There were couple of other British teachers and I forgot their names. I remember one of them asking me how I knew all the Euro-British and American theories. I told her that we lived in a country which was open to the world. She was not convinced and she treated me as an opponent rather than as a foreign student. Anna Harding was very lenient to me and she was patient enough to listen to my arguments. She taught us from her British and European experience. There were funding agencies in London and in other European countries. In India we did not have any funding agencies. Harding was teaching us to write fund raising applications, writing concept notes, press releases and so on. I told her that these things were absolutely useless in our country. She compassionately treated my comments and always encouraged me to do things the way I wanted. We were supposed to do a final project and mine was an absolutely conceptual one with no fund raising at all. Julia did a huge project in an old church in London. She could raise funds from the local bodies. Though I did not do any huge project I was one of the toppers in that academic year.
Coming to my cooking skills: It was Yoshiko who spread the word about my cooking. As I did not have much money I always went to the Deptford market where the Sri Lankans and Pakistanis sold Indian spices, vegetables and chicken and got them in large quantities. I stuffed the fridge with these things and cooked my food quite regularly. One day Yoshiko happened to visit me for some reason and I invited her to have some chicken curry and daal with rice. She liked them and she said it was really tasty. I was not doing any wonder in my cooking. It was the basic stuff. But when you are hungry you make the tastiest of food in the world. You just need to measure the intensity of your hunger to know the taste of the food that you make. So my food was always tasty. Yoshiko told about my food to many other friends and they started asking me to invite them for food which I did a few occasions. But Yoshiko and Julia were welcome any time without invitation or warning.
I was living a very Spartan life mainly because I did not have any money to spend on other than the stipend that the Charles Wallace Trust deposited in my bank account on a monthly basis. I bought my clothes from the ‘One Pounder Charity Shop’. At times when Shibu Natesan visited me as he is settled there, he took me out for dinner. We walked endlessly, talking about art and life. Whenever I felt loneliness I went to Barbican centre to catch up with some cultural programs. I visited exhibitions and whenever I could gather enough money I went for blockbuster shows at the huge museums there. Sitting at Trafalgar Square and watching people was another interesting pastime for me. And I did not have much time to pass there as one year was too short a time, I spent my time in museums, galleries and book stalls. The Waterstone Book stalls were very famous. And these multi storied book store was a pleasure garden for a book lover. I used to spend several hours in those books stalls and whenever I could manage money to buy some books I collected books.
Almost after six months of my stay in London, Mrinal visited me. She had worked hard to save enough money to pay a visit. Also I had saved a bit to help her in the travel. And it was then on the day of her arrival I remembered the condoms I had collected on the first day in London. I need not say in detail that I could use all of them and more once Mrinal was there with me for a month. Mrinal used to make sandwiches and pack them in containers. We travelled all over London visiting places, gardens, galleries, museums, historical sites and so on. All those thirty days of her stay in London, not a single day we sat back in the hostel. We travelled every day, eating always home cooked packed food. The most memorable visits were there in Tate Modern, Serpentine Gallery, Hide Park, Greenwich Village and so on. Mrinal had brought a pair of Churidar for Julia which she wore on that Easter day and after a few minutes she changed into her pair of jeans as she found the tying system quite uncomfortable. When Mrinal was around Yoshiko and Julia came quite regularly to our kitchen and we all had dinner together.
Before I close this chapter I should ask myself what exactly I had learnt from my education at the Goldsmiths College in London. I have my answer and let me narrate it here for you. The biggest education I had got from London was not from the classroom. It was from the library of the Goldsmiths College. If you don’t say that I am exaggerating let me tell you that I literally spent my three hundred and sixty five days inside this fabulous library. The opening time was eight in the morning and the closing time was ten at night. I used to wait for the front gate to open and along with the staff I entered the library and along with them I came out of it. I had some beautiful friends as my friends in the library. One was Elizabeth, a Afro-British girl who was pursuing a doctoral degree in one of the London Universities and was working as a library assistant at the Goldsmiths Library. We developed a good friendship and even now we occasionally write to each other.
This library was a revelation. I remember a woman clutching on her vanity bag the moment I went and sat near her in the tube. That was the first jolt of apartheid that I got in London. It happened during the initial days of my stay and it triggered my thoughts to study more about the history of black movements all over the world. I poured myself over the works of Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall, Bell Hooks, Kobena Mercer and many others. I studied the 1980s Afro-British uprising in London. I studied the black history in America. I read deep into the life and times of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. I studied Nelson Mandela deeply. My art historical and critical perspective was radically changed in that library. I watched movies done by black directors, and I studied the movies and photographs created by the Gay and black activists. Sunil Gupta helped me to understand the black movement in London in 1980s. I was so passionate about these studies that I even used to skip my lunch. Perhaps I could write a whole book on the studies that I had done sitting in that wonderful library. If I have another chance in my life, I would like to sit there again for another year. But now I am on my way to develop my own archives and research centre and waiting for the day of my retirement so that I could apply myself completely into studies.
That does not mean that I was a very disciplined student in London. I had my moments of frustration too. I had craved for women’s company. I had craved for sex. I wanted to fall in love. But then I knew that those were not escape routes and my mission in London was not to fall in love or to have random sex. So I did not look around for such things. I found out that there was a karate class going on in our college. I had learnt karate years back. I went to the class and enrolled myself. I practiced karate (shoto-kan style) till I left Goldsmiths in late 2003. I gained a few belts, which I later improved in the dojos in NOIDA and Sarita Vihar. When the frustration was at its heights, I used to walk down the streets alone looking for a corner shop so that I could purchase a pornography magazine. Each shop I found an Indian woman sitting at the counter because most of the corner shops were run by Indians, Pakistanis or Srilankans. And invariably women sat at the counter. It was impossible to buy a pornography magazine from an Indian woman. I don’t know why. But I felt it humiliating for both the parties. And I could buy one magazine from one of the corner shops kilometres away from my hostel where I found a European manning the counter. I had never visited even the SOHO street till Mrinal came. I knew that there were sex shops and out of curiosity we visited the shops and found there were not too many wares that we could employ in our lives or we have already tried the home made versions of many already.
My London life ended in 2003 September. I was offered a couple of jobs there and they told me that I could get work permit. Somehow I thought it was abominable to stay back and ‘work’. I wanted to come back to the heat and dust of Delhi. Somewhere in my mind I had this feeling that I would be welcomed by the art scene here. But things were not so cool once I came back. I had to get back to journalism once again before I could get back to art completely. Those were the humiliating years. But I don’t have any regrets. Not even once I had thought I could have stayed back in London and tried my luck there. I was always happy to be in India not because I am a nationalist but because it is a beautiful country with beautiful people. And I consider myself one among them.
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Harsh Sinha, fat, forty and fucked decides to take a one year sabbatical from his advertising career and wants to throw a surprise to his wife who is living with their daughter in Chennai. While toying with this idea, he happens to see a painting by Natraj Sharma titled ‘Fat, Fucked and Forty’ and Harsh gets hooked. He buys it for a whopping sum of Rs.27 lakhs. Since then he is a changed man. He has been away from his wife Gayathri and daughter Poornima for almost eight years. To be precise, throughout his married life Harsh has been a weekend father and husband. He goes to Chennai by the weekends and comes back to Mumbai for the weekdays. Now he wants to announce to his wife that he is going to be with her for a year. Also he wants to surprise her with his new catch; the Fat, Fucked and Forty painting. But something else was waiting for him in Chennai. Gayathri turns him away without giving much of an explanation. So now Harsh is jobless and homeless. Suddenly found anchorless in life, he wants to sell off his painting.
That is how Harsh Sinha’s tryst with art starts and that’s how the novel ‘Artist, Undone’ written by V.Sanjay Kumar starts. Published by Hachette India and priced at Rs.495, this book had raised a great interest amongst the art lovers and like many others me too before reading the book had thought that it was a ‘fact finding’ book about Indian contemporary art. But when it was published (read, promoted) during the India Art Fair 2012, the book gave a pleasant surprise to the readers for it turned out to be a book of fiction pitching mainly on the ‘events’ of Indian contemporary art scene. Before delving deep into the literary flourish of the book, let me tell you that it is the first work of literature that directly deals with the nuances of Indian contemporary art scene.
Author, V.Sanjay Kumar is an insider of the art scene and he is associated with Geetha Mehra of the Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai and Taipei. He gets into the skin of the protagonist, Harsh Sinha in a peculiar way that the reader is left to wonder whether he is narrating his own story. But through the skillful weaving of fact and fiction, Sanjay Kumar deflects the preconceptions that the readers tend to develop as the act of reading progresses. Harsh Sinha finds that his neighbor, the controversial artist Newton Coomaraswamy at the Coromondal Artists’ Village in Chennai, an acclaimed anarchist, plagiarist of Francis Newton Souza and a much envied womanizer making advances to his wife, Gayathri.
Harsh visits many galleries with his friend Roongta in order to find whether he would be able to sell his paintings. Slowly, Roongta, the resident Baniya too develops an affinity for art. In the due course Harsh meets Manoj Tyaagi, a financial consultant who now struggles to redeem his name from a grave financial scam that the government believes to have created by him. He is an avid collector of Newton’s works. And he says that he collects everything of Newton because like him Newton too is fighting to redeem his name. Harsh is introduced to Bhairavi, a Mumbai gallerist who is so passionate about her profession. Bhairavi is in the process of having a solo show of Newton Coomaraswamy. The opening press conference turns out to be controversial and Tyaagi buys the whole show.
In the subplots we see a couple of American art students trying to know more about Newton who in his first New York solo hosted by Bhairavi surprises everyone with his landscape paintings, a scandalous departure from his much talked about and maligned Souza like works. Also we see Gopi, a fellow painter in the Coromandal Artists’ Village and Marthandam, a retailer of mobile handsets keeping a track on Newton’s life and activities. They are hurt because Newton could cajole Gayathri into his life. There is love, passion, incest and false morality in their concerns. Years after, Tyaagi’s son becomes a gallerist and works towards buying the studio of Newton and becomes successful in it. Newton Coomarswamy passes away silently in one night. Harsh gets a call from his wife Gayathri. He is all in anticipation to see his wife now in graying hairs. But before she opens the door, Harsh decides to walk back. And Sanjay Kumar never says, to where.
The narrative moves between Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi, New York and many other mental spaces. What makes the reading exciting is the surreal intercuts between present-past and past-present. As we read on we feel that we know the places, the people and the galleries and cafes where Harsh and his friends walk into. Sanjay Kumar works through the familiar and makes them strange. Perhaps, this is the technique of the contemporary art itself; it takes the mundane and transforms it into the unfamiliar. In this transformation, the real people become characters and Sanjay Kumar makes it a point not to stereotype them. We cannot but smile when we go through the narrative about how the young gallery assistant behaves when they are confronted with novice art collectors and art lovers.
The book is amply illustrated; not in the Bergeian way but in the Pamuk-ian way. The paintings reproduced here in the book are the real markers/paintings that connect to the real people who have painted them. But the narrative like a Tony Ousler video juxtaposes one character with the other. One interesting thing about this book is the inbuilt discussion on plagiarism, influence, adoption, inspiration, co-optation- all phrases involved in the discourse of contemporary art and the idea of originality. Newton Coomaraswamy accepts that he incorporates Souza in him but he demands that one should see what he has done to the Souza in him. Without entering into the theoretical blabbering, Sanjay Kumar raises this issue of originality through his protagonists. So is his scathing criticism on the state of art critical writings. Sanjay Kumar in his characteristic narrative style, quotes critics like Geeta Kapur and Ranjit Hoskote and debates whether lucid writing is still a dream in the Indian art criticism.
I would conclude this review with a statement on art collecting by Harsh Sinha, the protagonist: ‘People buy art for aesthetics, for vanity, for pomp, for splendor, for peer-level masturbation, for a lark, to try to belong, to make money, because they can’t say no, because they can’t stop, because for a public rush of blood, for the rush that possession gives, for nostalgia, for the sheer joy of buying…’
Thursday, March 22, 2012
‘I am overwhelmed by the kind of greetings that I received on my birthday..thank you buddies,’ that’s what generally we say after getting more than a hundred messages in our profile page of any social networking sites. But I don’t want to say that to my friends. I don’t want to say this clichéd sentence mainly because I am not overwhelmed.
I am not overwhelmed. But I am afraid. I am afraid of the responsibility that your love and affection renders on my shoulders. The skeptic, the arrogant and the irreverent who resides in my mind asks me whether I am able to carry such a great responsibility. When people wish someone good on his/her birthday, they expect and they demand the person of their interest should be worthy enough to have such greetings.
If I fall short of their expectations, in fact I must be insulting myself through hurting their faith. But then I remember, the folk story, which had been painted by Bhupen Khakkar, ‘You Can’t Please All’. Yes, none can please all. But there is one person in this universe with you could tell the truth of your mind and that is ‘you’. You can look into your mind and ask whom are you going to please.
None in the world would get pleased by your acts. As Eddie Murphy puts it in a comic context, even your wife would ask you, ‘what have you done for me of late?’ You don’t have an answer. But you have an answer for you, for your own self.
At the age of forty three, when I sit in front of my FB profile and see all these friends wishing me great, I realize that they all helping me to looking into myself. They don’t want anything from. If at all they want anything from me, that is this; you just look into your own soul and see what you have done so far.
Forty three is not an important mile stone in anybody’s life. When you are thirty, people say it is time to start a life. When you are forty, people say tread cautiously. Now it is the time to grow. But several things keep knocking at your own soul and body. Your lungs would tell you to stop smoking. Your heart will tell you that it has been there all the time giving you free service. Now it is time to hark to its rhythmic heaving.
Friends tell you, it is time to have a complete check up. And you refuse to do. So one day when you sit in bus or a car or an aircraft you feel like choking. You just do not know what to do. You try to read, you look at the beautiful faces around you. Then you suddenly remember all what you have done in your life. Your rights and wrongs. You see your children’s face. You see your wife’s face. You see your mother’s face. You see your dead father. You see your friends and soon everything go out of focus.
When you get up from a physician’s stretcher with semen like jelly messing up your chest hair, you realize that you have a heart and now it is time to quit many things. Doctor advices you to be cautious. And he reiterates your faith by saying that you are as fit as a nut.
Yes, you have gone nuts. That’s why suddenly at the age of forty three you feel like forty three years old. Your wife tells you to behave like a forty three year old man. Your girl friends say, don’t. You are still young. Your kids, if you jive with the song in the television, ask you to go and sit at the computer. Your neighbors really don’t know; they feel that you are too young to be respected and too old to be neglected.
So you take revenge in the bed. Your wife tells you that it happens, don’t worry. Friends tell you, one day you need to dye your hair otherwise your kids would tell you not to go to their school when the session is on. They don’t want to see an old man coming in looking for them.
At the park, when you overtake the young couple in the walkway, they look at your with some kind of suspicion. The husband doubts your vigor and the young wife likes your rigor. You take pride while examining your mid riff; you are still fat free. You have an ironing board for a stomach. You have nothing to cut; even your living cost.
But then end of the day what are you supposed to do after turning forty three. So you masturbate and you ejaculate your humiliation on the bathroom floor. You can count the sperms in that. They are too less. You look at the mirror. The reflection laughs at you. So you flex your muscle and curse under your breathe.
Then you smile. You want to forget everything. You want to move away from all these worldly ties. You just want to be alone. You just want to be one with yourself. You don’t want to listen to your children screaming. You don’t want the flushing of toilet from the next door. You don’t want to see lovers walking hand in hand and exploring their secrets under a chunni. You don’t want to read anything. You don’t want to do anything.
But then it is at forty three, they say, one gets the real maturity. This is the time you start your professional life. It is the time you make schemes for your future. If you need a happy ending you need to pay for it.
Life, like a whore sitting on your knees would tease your organ with her index finger and ask, do you need a happy ending. To get that ultimate explosion of your nothingness you need to pay. And to pay for that you need to work.
So here, I am friends, working and trying to tell you that’s why I am working.
Sunday, March 11, 2012
In Kerala two types of people appear as xeroxed prints on A4 size paper; one, those who have gone missing, two, those who have passed away. The print status shows their social standing. Rich and powerful, when go missing, appear either as front page news or as columns. When they die, their pictures appear in embroidered frames in the third pages of the newspapers.
The hapless ones appear as Xerox prints. There is one more category of people who make their appearance as Photostat prints- the wanted ones, not the ‘most wanted’ types, but the locally wanted thugs, pickpockets and debtors. They all look at you from pillars, closed shutters, broken walls and street corners reeking in the ammonia smell of urine. Perhaps, this is not the story of Kerala losers alone. This is the story of every where, especially an ‘anywhere’ in India.
From these white sheets accentuated by the bleeding of black ink from the malfunctioning Xerox machines in the dimly lit corner shops, these people stare at you; a kind of stare only the people who have gone out of the normal trajectories of social life could give you. The moment the photographs are transferred into Photostat copies, they wear a cloak of death and distance. They look like people who have lost in themselves. They look like people who never have been.
People in the Photostat pictures are apparitions, framed tightly as decaying busts. The erstwhile smile that had been frozen by the click of the unknown camera person looks like an eerie mask that makes each of them look more and more like unnumbered and obscured creatures in a penitentiary ledger than those entries in a real voters list.
Such was that figure that was looking at me from that A 4 size paper. It was following me like a half moon stalking me throughout my nightly trips. It was there on the electric post, roughly glued so that I could trace the Braille codes made out of cement blobs. That man, to be precise that no-man with no-eyes and no-smile, but a stare that throws you into the whirlpool of nightmares, was looking at me from everywhere.
“He was sixty one year old,” someone told me from the next seat. I was almost finishing my 173 kilometer journey from Kottayam to my village. The man who told me had no ears. In their place I saw two crumbled pieces of flesh fused into the shape of a wax effigy. I looked into his face and it was hollow and it resembled the man on the Xerox copy. But the difference between them was this one next to me was simply breathing and talking to me.
“He never went to attend anybody’s death,” the man continued. And I noticed that he was burnt from neck to finger tips. But he was gleeful and the local guys traveling in the bus were acknowledging him as if he were quite an important person. Suddenly I found myself in the midst of total strangers who I thought were conspiring against me, my alien presence through their side glances and half broken smiles.
“He never went to see good bye to anyone as he was busy with his small shop,” the man continued. “And you see, one day he himself is gone. He has just become a picture on the wall. Perhaps, these guys who posted his pictures all over, are taking revenge on his pettiness that he used to flaunt as his virtue when he was alive. Now, look at me. I am a burnt stick. But I am still alive. This driver may apply breaks now. I may fall on you or you may fall on me. Who knows? Tomorrow I may be the one to go or are you the one?”
I was curious and the sudden invocation of death shook me up a little bit. The good stereo in the bus played a good music; an old song. The half burnt man started humming along. He asked me, ‘Can you identify the movie?” I made a quick calculation and said ‘CID Nazir’. Yes, right, he said. I had won that round for the first time after getting into that bus full of strangers.
‘You know, now everyone wants to know how I was burnt,” he told me. I asked him the same question. Come home, I will tell you, he replied. Funny, I thought. If you come home, I will tell you why I was burnt. Now the television channels want to know how a person comes back to life after going through death. I am treated as a person who has seen the other world, the world where you have not gone yet, he continued.
Suddenly, I thought of V.K.Sreeraman, a writer, actor and television program producer. He had produced a series of tele-documentaries on people who were different from us and showed distinct social behaviors. So I asked him, did Sreeraman come to you? “What the fuck is that?” he spat heavily on the floor. By the time the bus had stopped at the terminus. “I know only one Sreeraman and he was Sita’s husband,” saying this he walked off.
I saw my Photostat image on the floor, now covered with the phlegm that he had just spat out.
Thursday, March 8, 2012
I have been thinking about writing about nudes for a long time. I have come across several nude men and women in my life. Many of them have stripped willingly for me. I have also taken pains to peep into somebody’s privacy and see their naked bodies. I like naked bodies because they tell you a lot about that person. I don’t judge people according to their colour or size. I just look at them. Admire them. And in several of my writings I have incorporated those impressions I have received while looking at those naked bodies.
Nakedness is an original state of body. For several reasons including religion, climate and sexual arousal people dress it up or deck it up. Wearing clothes is a daily ritual that all the people do without fail or drudgery. But undressing or taking out clothes is a rash act, perhaps and unmindful one. You can be thinking about something and take out your clothes as if you were doing something quite mechanical, like changing the gear while driving. You don’t tell yourself, ‘now I am in third gear, as I need to increase the speed, I am going to shift it to fourth’. You just do it. Unclothing is a mechanical act.
Nudity is a resultant state of the body as witnessed by someone. When someone decides to become nude, the unclothing happens very consciously. Imagine those particular moments in your life; you are alone in your dressing room. You have just come out the shower. The towel around your body is hot enough to suck the wetness away from your skin. On the left cheek you feel a tuft of wet hairs stuck as if they together were defining the contour of your face in a different way. You stand before the large mirror. You take the towel off from your waist or chest. You know you are going to wear a set of clothes that you have chosen specially for that day. You may have to attend an interview, impress a boss, meet a date and receive someone from the airport or just to feel happy about yourself. But suddenly you see yourself reflected in the mirror.
You look at yourself carefully. Your eyes run along the imaginary contours of your body. You shift your legs, turn a bit to the right and see whether that posture of yours is appealing. And you shift to the left and see again. Your eyes run through each and every inch of your body. You can stand like that for hours. You love you; more than anyone else love you, you love yourself. But what do you love in yourself? Your body? When you love your body you are just loving your nudity; you are the actor and the result, you are the object and subject of your gaze. None could enjoy your body much better than yourself. Being Narcissistic is not a deranged psychological order. It is the final step to philosophical contemplation. You love your nudity. When you love your own nude you love the nude of others also.
But how do you differentiate between nudity and nakedness? Nakedness is natural. It is like sky and your mind or the sky reflected in your mind. You wear sky in your perennial nakedness. Nudity is something created out of a context. You enjoy your nudity because just before that moment of pleasure you were clad in a towel or a pair of clothes. Nudity is a zone of transition that allows you to have glimpses of your perennial nakedness. In your ultimate nakedness, your body, your nude body becomes irrelevant. However the pathways become irrelevant, they don’t cease to be pathways. So it is always good to enjoy your own nudity and the nudity of others. That does not mean that I am propagating the idea of peeping and voyeurism. Nor do I promote pornography. Pornography is a zone of ambiguity and meaninglessness where nude bodies are posted or posited for unproductive gazing. Pornography is manufactured by irreverently mixing nakedness and nudity for commercial purpose. Pornography always acts out of the body; it is a simulacrum and operates in a simulacral space. It gives out the impression of being there but it is never there.
In Sabeena Gadihoke’s documentary on the life of the veteran woman photographer, late Homai Vyarawalla, there is a very touching scene. Homai looks at the camera and tells in a tired but firm voice, “This is a biological thing to age.” She knows that she is decaying in her body and dying day by day. But even at that point of time what she likes to talk about is her body. “I am not this body. This is just a shell and this shell is bound to break. But even when I talk to you now, there is another Homai in me. Another young girl in me. It is she who is talking. What you see is nothing.” (This is paraphrased by me) Only an artist or philosopher could talk like that. This body is nothing. This body is bound to break. But still we love it. The more we love our body, the more we love the body of others because...
Because, a beautiful body is a nude body and you would like to see nude bodies. That does not mean that clothed bodies are ugly bodies. Nor do I believe that when someone becomes nude he or she naturally turns out to be beautiful. But my view is that one could be beautifully nude by undressing for oneself and for others. Nudity lies in trust. It is a trust between you and your own self. It is a trust between you and your witness. You become nude before someone does not mean that you have sex with that person. Two people could be completely at ease with clothes. Similarly they could be at ease even if both are nude or one of them is nude. Clothes cannot decide the moral code of conduct of a society. Clothes are a pretext to keep people under hegemonic control.
When a painter, sculptor or a film maker does a nude, he or she collapses the hegemonic controls. Feminists say that male artists painting nude females represent the male gaze therefore male chauvinistic morals and rules. This is absolutely true. But an artist is a person who ultimately reveres the nude body of a woman or a man. A film maker, if he or she is sensitive, could bring the soul of a character through the nude body of an actor or actress. It is very difficult to write about nudes in words. You can theorize nudity and nakedness the way Kenneth Clark had done. You can argue for and against the idea of nudity in art, film and literature. You can go on giving details of nude figures in words. But what about a series of writing on nude people, both male and female? I think that is the task that I have taken up for myself. I don’t know whether that would be successful or not.
I remember a situation written by the noted Malayalam novelist, (Late) V.K.N in his novel ‘Aarohanam’ (Ascendance). The protagonist of the novel who goes by the name, Payyan (A Guy) is a supremely clever journalist who could enter even into the bedrooms of politicians. One of the politicians wants to be a prominent minister in the centre. Sunanda, the wife of the politician is in love with Payyan. In the drawing room a heated political discussion is on. Payyan walks into the bedroom. Suananda hugs him and kisses him. Then V.K.N says, “Payyan looked at the large mirror. There Sunanda was coming out of her white saree as if the moon from a thicket of clouds.” This is a very pathetic translation of the original Malayalam. But when you see this imagery created out of words, you could see the nudity of Sunanda willingly revealed for Payyan because he trusts herself and there is an unwritten trust between her and him.
I have seen hundreds of naked bodies. And a few nude bodies. But I can say that I have seen enough nude bodies to write a series on nude men and women. Kiyari, was a young boy of seventeen, when I first met him. I too was seventeen years old. I was in an artist’s studio. Kiyari was a friend of the artist. When he came inside, the artist introduced me to him. My artist friend was making a portrait of me in oil colours. I was wearing a blue shirt with horizontal white stripes. It looked like a camouflage clothe, the kind of clothe worn by LTTE leader (late) Prabhakaran. My moustache was not thick and beard was sparse. But the wild hair gave me an impressive look. Artist friend too was young and he was deeply influenced by two artists then; Vincent Vangogh and Pablo Picasso. Hence, this portrait of mine was in the post-impressionist mode with thick impasto of strokes.
Kiyari stood before me and smiled at me; at that age I had seen that kind of smile only on two creatures. One, the sculptures of Buddha. Two, sleeping dogs. You also might have noticed the dogs smiling in their sleep. If you have not, please look at the sleeping dogs. Kiyari smiled at me like a sleeping dog. He did not say anything. He removed his clothes one by one. His breasts were sagging. And he had a pot belly. His pubic hairs were not so thick and he had a very long penis. It was circumcised. His hands hung from his shoulders as if they were two unwanted protrusions of his body. His back was a bit bent and his buttocks were round. He again smiled at me. I was not a stranger to homo sexuality or such acts. My artist friend went on painting my portrait as if nothing had happened. Kiyari, the nude man stood in front of me.
I was not sure whether there was any trust or pact between me and him for I was seeing him for the first time in my life. My trust, however, was unimportant in that situation. It was Kiyari who was trusting me. He thought he could show his nudity to me. He wanted to flaunt what he had. Then he kneeled before me and started kneading my thighs. I smiled at him. His hands moved along my body and I don’t remember whether I liked it or not. My young artist friend went on painting. Kiyari, after touching me for a few minutes, went and reclined on a mattress. I imagined the paintings of Modigliani. And I thought Kiyari was really a handsome young man.
Sunday, March 4, 2012
From a distance I could hear metal sticks striking against the cemented walkway. The sound is rhythmic; like music beat it comes in regular intervals. If I try to recapture the sound, it would be something like this- a firm hit on the ground and with this the metal piece at the end of it tells the earth, hold me. Then you hear, if only you have trained ears, a wheezing sound of leather grazing the ground. A moment of silence. Again you hear another sound of metal crushing the cement. Slowly the sound comes closer. It enters the dark and gloomy entrance that most of the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) flats have. Then the sound creeps up; the same sound and beats but now tapped in a different rhythm. The grazing of leather on the ground seems to be a bit laboured and the metal sounds a bit cautious. Slowly it comes up and it comes and stops in front of our door.
Mrinal and myself would be reading or writing or making love. When we hear this voice, we look at each other and a smile blooms on our lips. We know the meaning of that sound. We extract ourselves from whatever we are doing and rush to the front door. Before the door bell rings, we open the door. And we know who comes with that music of metal touching the ground. The man there at the door is none other than Shijo Jacob, then art student at the Jamia Millia Islamia, now a professional artist and an assistant professor in the Painting Department at the Fine Arts College, Mavelikkara, Kerala.
Shijo came to our life in Mayur Vihar Phase III with this music. And this music of his gait was created by the metal crutches that he carried with him. This handsome young man was affected by polio when he was seven years old. But against all odds, Shijo kept his spirit high and walked the distances that generally the healthy people do not dare to walk. Climbed the heights that people like us thought to be dizzying. Shijo Jacob is a handsome young man with a thick moustache and a smile that disarms anyone and invites him or her into an embrace. Whenever I think about Shijo and his smile, I think about soothing ring tones in some people’s mobile phones. You may be mad at those people and you really want to scream at them. You dial their number as if you were sticking the voodooist’s needle on an effigy. And finally the bell rings. No it does not ring. Instead, it plays out a song or a tune that melts you into a piece of helplessness. You really want to shout at the person who picks up the call. But when he really does that, you just ask, ‘how’s it going man?’
With such hearty smile Shijo had won everyone’s life when he was in Delhi. He lived with his sister’s family in a very small accommodation in Mayur Vihar Phase III and it was from there he did his works, pretty large canvases that expressed his pleasure and pain, philosophy and world view. Perhaps, Shijo Jacob was one of the first few artists in Delhi who had taken mediatic realism quite seriously and incorporated autobiographical narratives in that mode. I remember a body of works that Shijo had done in late 1990s, which should have really generated a serious discourse on the notion of disability and gender. Shijo painted his own disabled body along with the images of two super models on either side of him and titled the work as ‘Come, Model with Me’. Also he did a series of large paintings where he painted his polio affected body as an iconic image. Mrinal and myself presented Shijo in the shows curated by us doing that time. Unfortunately, the idea of curatorial practice was totally a non-starter at that time. Though our efforts were lauded by well wishers, our artists were not hugely picked up by the mainstream galleries.
Though I would write about my London experiences in one of the forthcoming chapters, I feel that it is pertinent to talk about physical disability in the context of Indian art. In 2003, I was awarded with the Charles Wallace India Trust Scholarship to do a post graduation in Creative Curating at the Goldsmiths College, University of London. I was very happy to have that opportunity and I was sure that the scholarship was awarded to me for my efforts to build up a scene of curatorial practice in Delhi during 1990s when none was talking about curatorial practice in the city. In London, I visited most of the public and private galleries. I was thrilled and at the same time I was sad too. What surprised me was the public awareness on disability. The low-floored buses had an appendage that would come out when a passenger on a wheel chair came to the door. Any public transportation system including the tube trains and taxis had this provision. All the galleries, both public and private had ramps and side bars that helped the people with disability move easily. The lavatories were a real revelation to me. I sneaked into the lavatories for the disabled to see how they are designed. Overwhelmed by these findings, I wrote a mail. I was an email activist since 1997.
I wrote a mail to all the gallerists in India asking them why they don’t have a ramp and disable friendly environments in their galleries. Shijo Jacob was my point of reference though I did not mention his name in the mail. I had seen him walking with us everywhere, to each opening (we did not have money to hire a taxi or auto). I had seen him climbing stairs of the private galleries with great difficulty. So when I was writing this mail and sending out to hundreds of people, I was literally furious. Soon came answers, out of that two of them surprised me. Many sent me sympathetic mails that said we needed urgent relook into our spatial designing of the galleries and public spaces. One gallerist in Mumbai wrote to me: ‘Never write to us such nasty mails. If you do, we will remove you from our mailing list.’ I think Mumbai gallerists have a special way of handling criticism. In 2009 a few gallerists came together to ban me from Indian art scene. They also sent mail out to many saying that I should be kept away from the scene.
One good mail that I got was from the senior artist Arpana Caur. She wrote to me: Johny, our Academy of Fine Arts and Literature at Siri Fort, has a ramp and our gallery is disable friendly.’ It was the only mail of consolation for me at that time. Sitting in the Goldsmiths’ computer room, seeing snowflakes falling like frozen sighs of the heavenly dames, I looked at Arpana Caur’s mail and felt happy. At least there was one gallerist/artist in India at that time to come out boldly and say that she was sensitive towards such issues. My relationship with Arpana Caur is a long one. She was one of the first few along with my mentor, K.S.Radhakrishnan, who had given me free spaces to do whatever I wanted at that point of time. We met Arpana Caur in 1996 and in the next year, she allowed us to use her gallery premises to conduct our activities. We used to hold fortnightly illustrated lectures and I can proudly say today that it was on this platform most of the successful artists learned their first lessons of public presentation and speech.
These illustrated lectures were really interesting. We honed our curatorial skills while the artist friends polished their presentation skills in this platform. When we proposed that we wanted to conduct regular slide shows and talks, Arpana Caur chalked out a plan. She said that she would give the space free and also she would give Rs.500 (Five Hundred) to the presenting artist. It was a great incentive. For us Rs.500 was a big amount then. Besides, Arpana Caur ordered tea and samosas for all the people. Though our idea was to have illustrated lectures, suddenly we faced a problem. None of us had a slide projector. Roy Thomas pitched in then. He procured a small manual slide projector that looked like a toy. It was a stand in device bought from Old Delhi for fifty rupees or so. We ran a few sessions with this projector and in the meanwhile K.S.Radhakrishnan gave us his German slide projector. This projector came to him from some other friend and was really old. Its service ended after a few sessions. It was then Atul Bhalla came to offer his services. His school, Mira Model School, Delhi, had a good projector and he brought that for our programs. After a few sessions, Atul Bhalla found it difficult to get the projector quite regularly from the school. It was then Arpana Caur came once again into the picture. She started offering another five hundred rupees so that we could hire slide projector from professional agencies. These sessions went on till 2001.
Once Shijo finished his post graduation from Jamia Milia Islamia, he was finding it difficult to continue his practice as studio spaces were costly in Delhi. I presented this case to Arpana Caur and she gave a huge sunny studio space to Shijo in the Academy of Fine Arts and Literature premises. This basement studio was also a hub of different activities. People from economically deprived societies came there to get training in stitching and other crafts. The space was noisy often as the girls worked kept talking to each other. This was no ideal studio for a serious young artist. However, as there was no other space available, Shijo had to work from the same studio for some months and he could produce some good works from there. Despite all the shortcomings of the studio in Arpana Caur’s place, one should acknowledge the fact that she was so considerate to the young and struggling artists of that time and was always ready to extent support to most of them. From the same studio, Shijo did a series of works, using the property documents of his family. This was work with strong conceptual orientations though it was not exhibited in Delhi.
Shijo was not the only struggler of that time. Getting a studio was a real problem for most of them. Josh P.S, a noted artist of this time who is promoted by Peter Nagy of Nature Morte was living a very tiny room near the Ashram fly over. In the adjacent rooms there lived kabadi walas, vegetable sellers, peddlers and so on. They all shared the same toilet and bathroom. We used to go to Josh’s room quite regularly and it was from here Josh did some of interesting works which he did not show to the world. One of the series that he did from here was the blood and semen series. During my visits to his room, after having tea made on portable gas stove, with rats as witnesses to our holy communion, we used to go to the ‘chat’ (terrace) of the building, where Josh inserted a surgical syringes into his veins that I held tightly for easy penetration. The blood thus collected was sprayed on the canvas in different patterns. They left a dark red stain on the canvas initially, then slowly turned into a dirt like pattern. The other series was done with semen collected by him quite diligently. And there were hair series and sweat series.
Somehow, Josh decided not to exhibit them though I exhorted him to come out with those works. Finally, we came out with a plan of exhibition. Though I did not call myself as the curator of the solo show of Josh, it was my idea to present his works in a very interesting but radical way. Josh booked a small gallery in the Garhi Artists’ Village in Delhi. In the middle of the gallery, we stacked up all the works (canvases) that he had done during those years. It stood like a rectangular block in the middle of the gallery. Along the walls we pasted post card size photographs of the same works in a row. And one additional element that Josh added to the whole display was the spreading of naphthalene balls on the floors of the gallery in order to conceptually show the idea of time and preservation. One afternoon I went to meet Josh at the Garhi Gallery and I saw him sitting in a chair dozing off. The glass doors of the gallery was closed and the smell of naphtha was strong in the air. It was suffocating. I called out Josh but he was not responding. With surging panic in my mind, I shook him up violently. As if from another world, Josh came back to Garhi Gallery. He looked at me with vague eyes. I pulled him out of the gallery and made him breath fresh air and washed his face with cold water. When I imagine that scene still a shudder passes through my spine.
I have a special association with Josh. He comes from Vakkom, my village. When I was in my village I did not know the existence of Josh. His elder brothers were my friend. I did not know their younger brother would become an artist. I met Josh first time in Baroda and then in Delhi. We were all struggling and Josh was desperate to have some money so that he could pay the rent of the rat infested hole. It was then an artist from Bangalore approached me to arrange his show in the Visual Art Gallery at the India Habitat Centre. Visual Art Gallery was not a happening place then. It had just started. This artist from Bangalore had booked the gallery. Some middlemen from Delhi had joined him, promising him that he would be sold like (MF) Husains. I was brought into the picture by a common friend and I worked towards making the show a reality. I totally disliked his works but the money that he offered was good (Rs.25,000/-) My job was to arrange the press, send out the invites, make the catalogue, write the catalogue and so on. Josh was my assistant in all these because I told him that part of the money would be given to him.
A few friends of Josh were doing screen printing to eke out a living. So we decided to get the invitation done by them. The invitation and envelop were ready and Josh brought them home. When I was looking at the invitation card I had an eerie feeling. Wasn’t something wrong there? I asked myself. The title of the show was given as ‘Reveries’. ‘Reveries’ means day dreaming. But I found the spelling on the card and cover as ‘RIVERIES’. It was a spelling mistake. We did not have any money to re-print the whole thing again. Nor did I want to let the person know that we had done a mistake. So I brainstormed myself and came with this fantastic idea- write a line just below the word ‘Riveries’- ‘River of Memories’. I consulted Josh on this and he said it was possible. So within that night we got all the cards and covers re-serigraphed with this phrase ‘river of memories’. The situation was saved. First Josh was introduced to the artist and his friends as a young photographer specializing in catalogue photography. And on the eve of the show, Josh was again brought in as my assistant in displaying. By that time, I think, they knew that Josh was being multitasked. Fortunately they paid him a few thousand rupees with which he could pay off his debts.
On the opening evening, I found Josh absolutely sad. I did not know why he was sad. The show was sparsely attended by the art community. It was mostly attended by a group of people who did not have anything to do with art. They had come as friends of the artist and the middlemen. They had a good party and left. Josh took me into the darkness outside. He said, ‘Johny, you are doing a wrong thing. You are prostituting yourself.’ Then he broke down. I did not know what to tell him. What he said was true and I was prostituting myself. My aim was to get some money and arrange some money for Josh. I could not say anything to Josh for some time. Once he finished with his sobbing we went inside as if nothing had happened between us. Next day, by afternoon I took Josh to the DND Flyover in Delhi. At lonely stretch I stopped my bike. We stood facing each other. We looked at the vast expanse of grass and marsh down there and the misty horizon at the end. We cried. We held our hands tightly and cried till we felt light. There was a conclusion to that story. The cheque worth of Rs.25000/- given to me by that artist bounced (I still have that cheque in my archives). Mrinal and I went to the place where the middlemen stayed. The neighbours told us that they had sold all their furniture and left the place. Years later, while strolling in Trivandrum with a friend, I came across one of them. He did not recognize me. Some sort of rage came in mind. I wanted to go and slap him on his face. But I restrained and walked off.
When I talk about Shijo and Josh, I cannot forget Binoy Verghese. An absolute romantic who sang beautifully when he got high on spirit, Binoy was a part of our life. In his large eyes, sadness was a permanent bhava. His curly hairs embroidered his perennial gloom with dark velvet. However, when he smiled the all his sadness dissolved into it, the way the salt toy got lost into the sea water. Binoy too was struggling hard to eke out a living. He did not work in firms or agencies. Instead, he borrowed money from his well wishers and kept working on his canvases. Once he managed to get a funding from a rich friend to go to Canada and spend almost a year there at the Banff art centre. Like many who came back from abroad after studies or residencies, Binoy also found himself nowhere. Then he found a place to stay near Safdarung and started working from Garhi studios. The penury of those days were so intense that the canteen owner in the Garhi studios stopped giving him food on credit. Then he had to shift to another makeshift canteen in the Garhi premises run by a young boy who took pity on Binoy and provided him with food. Jomy Thomas of Malayala Manorama was another anchor for Binoy Verghese. Jomy occasionally helped him with small amounts.
Like Shijo, Binoy too was one of the earliest exponents of mediatic realism after Shibu Natesan and many others from Mumbai. Binoy mostly painted his friends and dancers. He painted his own image on canvases in various performative postures. These works were exhibited in the shows titled ‘Small but Significant’, ‘CAN’, ‘There is a Place in the Sun’ and so on curated by Mrinal and I. A major breakthrough came for Binoy when he painted an eight by five canvas with the image of a palace dining room with chandeliers and laid out food. What made that impressive painting provocative was the dominant image of a poor girl sitting right on the top of that dining table with a cold look on her face. This painting was quite haunting and at the same time he had done another painting titled ‘The Vaudevillian Nights’. I had taken both these images to many people thinking that they would take an interest in them. One young gallerist in Delhi told me that she would like to see the original. I took the painting in a small pick up van to the gallery. She liked the painting and kept it for a day.
The next day she called me up and said that she was not interested in the painting. So I had to go and pick up the work and give it back to Binoy. After a week or so, when I was watching the European film festival at the Siri Fort Auditorium (we had enough time to catch up with any cultural festivals happening in town then). Then my mobile buzzed. It was the gallerist. She wanted the painting once again. I had to leave the movie half way. I went to Garhi. Got a pick up van, collected the painting and went to the gallery. She kept the work with her. After a few days, she said I could collect the money. It was around forty thousand rupees. I was so glad and I gave the money to Binoy. That was the happiest day in Binoy’s life.
However, I was not in a position to show Binoy as a person to the world. Not because he was not handsome. He was handsome enough to enter into the dreams of girls who were dreaming the dreams of oasis in deserts. But he was not equipped to face the world in terms of proper clothes. I did not want Binoy to go before a gallerist in tatters. Interestingly and surprisingly, the gallerist had not asked me about the whereabouts of the artist whose works she had started selling. I deliberately hid the fact that Binoy was a Delhi based artist. My idea was to collect enough money for Binoy so that he could shift to a decent accommodation and get new clothes. He could do it in a few month’s time as the gallerist was buying Binoy’s works through me. Let me take this opportunity to tell you that either I was a fool or I was too much filled with idealism. I was not taking any commission from anybody for the services that I was doing to both the gallerist and Binoy. I dutifully gave the money to Binoy. Perhaps, he also did not know the games of the market so he did not ask me whether I needed any money. Blissfully unaware of the ways in which the market worked we remained perfect friends unhampered by the arrival of money.
The game did not last long. I was about to make my fourth sales for Binoy. I had already informed him of the gallerist who was buying or dealing with his works. I also told him that he should not meet the gallerist until I told him. One day I went to the gallery with an image of Binoy’s work and to my surprise I found him standing inside the gallery, looking at the works displayed there. He was now wearing better clothes. But the confidence level was not high enough. The gallerist came out to see me and it was not possible for me to play the game of deception anymore. I introduced Binoy to the gallerist and bowed myself out of the whole deal. But the gallerist, Binoy himself and myself know for sure that my role as a middle person in the whole affair was not that of a broker who was looking for some commission. I have never taken any commission from anybody in any of my dealings with art. I was always eager to help out friends. Then happened the path breaking solo show of Binoy at the Palette Art Gallery in New Delhi. I wrote the catalogue and the catalogue was a super hit, so was the show. Binoy had arrived with that show.
There is a reason why I talked about these three friends. They were with me when I was really going through the worst phase of my life. As I told you at some stage, we were not looking for setting up a proper family with kids. We were planning to lead a life without kids. Whenever, I think about those days, I feel myself like a stupid. Had it not been you, how boring and meaningless our life would have been. Sometime in 1998, we decided to bring a child in our life. I clearly remember that the decision was taken during one of our trips in Kerala. We were staying in a hotel in Kochi and while making love, I whispered into Mrinal’s ears that I was coming in her with a beautiful mission. And she received me with a lot of love. We knew that it was not one of the frolicking moments. In that moderate hotel room we were engaged in a divine purpose; to prepare for your arrival.
After a month and a half in Delhi, Mrinal told me that she was pregnant. Our happiness knew no bounds. We thought our life had changed suddenly. Everything started looking different. We were having different kinds of aspirations and dreams since that strip up of plastic turned red and confirmed pregnancy. But during the third month, Mrinal said she was not feeling well and blood spots were seen. We went to a hospital immediately. They made certain tests and told that the foetus had stopped growing after one and half months. We did not know how to take that news. The gynaecologist advised an immediate removal of the dead foetus, which we understood as an abortion.
Mrinal was taken into the hospital room. Those were not the days of mobile phones. I did not want to call any one of my friends who had landlines. Mrinal was brought back after an hour or so. She was lying sedated. Suddenly she was looking weak and pale. I felt a deep sense of guilt for putting her through this pain. I did not know what they did not her. Doctor told me that she will be under sedation for a whole day. I did not have much to do. I was totally disappointed. And during all those hours one person was with me- that was Shijo Jacob. He did not utter a word. He did not try to console me. He did not try to cheer me up. He just sat there with me. His presence was a great solace. No words would suffice my gratitude for him for his silent presence on that day.
May be I can conclude this chapter here. But I want to say something more. Back home in Mayur Vihar Phase III, life suddenly looked meaningless. I was not a believer so I did not go to any temple. But somehow I felt like reading something that was not a part of my life for a long time. I started reading ‘Adhyatma Ramayan’ by Thunchathu Ezhuthacchan. I had not touched this book for several years though it was there with me as a part of my collection of literature. But this time, each verse appeared before me with a different meaning and it soothed me to the core. But Mrinal was angry. Reading Ramayana was a death related ritual. I don’t know it was a natural reaction or seeking a philosophical anchor or a deeper sense of understanding that in that abortion I had actually lost a son or daughter who would have changed my life forever.
Hospitals, labs, tests, regular visits to gynaecologists and so on. This became a ritual for the years that followed. Mrinal started putting on weight thanks to the hormonal changes came to her through medication. Two more abortions happened in the following years. And finally we lost hope. We were thinking of adopting children. Things were not happening the way we wanted. But throughout those turbulent years these three people-Shijo Jacob, Josh PS and Binoy Verghese-stood with us along with many other friends. And all of them were happy when you came in 2005 and 2009 respectively.