Saturday, February 28, 2009

Bastar Sketches

Bastar. This name has been there in the tongues of many artists for long time. It is a dream destination for the artists. Bastar, the southern district in Chattisgarh, is rich in natural resources. The soil is rich with ores. Forests line either side of the main road that leads to Bastar. It is a tribal belt and several artisans’ communities live here. Agriculture and crafts are the main occupation of the people. Lack of education and general backwardness had made the people here quite vulnerable. Hence decades back the ultra leftists, the Naxalites came to protect the interests of the tribal people here. They groomed the locals into militant left wing ideology. The Naxalites promised protection for the Bastar people from those who exploited them.

When Chattisgarh was carved out from the state of Madhya Pradesh, the new government promised several perks to the tribals and artisan communities. The Non-Governmental organizations work here diligently for the progress of the people. With effective governance and social engineering by planners, eradication of poverty and unemployment became an achievable goal. Slowly people who once protected the Naxalites started showing aversion to their militant ways. Now Naxalites do not get strong support from the natives. They seem to have become professional social crusaders. They fight the system by exploding police jeeps and killing government officials.

“Be extra cautious while venturing out,” friends who know about Bastar and its socio-political climate warn us ever since we started our journey to Bastar. We reach here by night after a long drive and settle in ‘Sathi-Samaj Sevi Sanstha’, an NGO that has been working from Kumbharpara, Kondagaon since 1988. Somu has worked with this NGO at regular intervals by conducting sculpture workshops in Bastar since 2001.

A Cold Morning in Bastar

Bastar reminds me of Santiniketan. Chirping of birds and the smell of burning wood and thickets fill the atmosphere. The morning is pleasantly cold. I come out of the house where we stay, covering myself with a chaddar (blanket). I don’t think I look any different from the villagers who are similarly covered. The houses here are low roofed and tiled. The walls are painted in rich green and blue colours. The courtyards look really clean. Getting water from the hand pumps seems to be the main job of the women and children as they are seen walking around with steel and clay pots on their heads. Feroze and Somu join me and we walk around the Sathi campus and do some photography. I pretend that I am a tribal from here. After seeing the pictures taken by Feroze, I feel clothes make a lot of difference to people.

A Visit to Sathi School

Sathi-Samaj Sevi Sanstha runs a school here for the children of artisans and tribal people. Bhupesh Tiwari, the man behind Sathi tells us that the people were not interested in education. Hence, Sathi started a school five years ago, starting from the nursery school. Now it has four standards. Each year one more class is added to the school. After eight years it will be a full fledged higher secondary school.

The village folk never liked their children studying. Those children who studied till eighth or tenth class from the government schools in the district did not want to continue their traditional crafts or artisan practices. Hence they used to stray. Unemployment looked like a self created vice then. Now, Sathi that works from eight different villages convinced the people that their children would be able to earn a minimum five thousand rupees a month if they finished their school, developed communication skills, general knowledge, business strategies and confidence. Bhupesh Tiwari envisions a future for these children where they would run their own business in arts and crafts and earn quite well.

In the school we see around hundred children; all in uniform. The local children walk to school, while the children from neighbouring villages come by a van provided by Sathi. Nursery, LKG, UKG, and four standards are now in full swing. There are eight teachers in the school. Rashmi Varma, a young lady heads the school. Children are taught English, Hindi, Mathematics, Environmental Science, General Knowledge and arts and crafts. Village elders are invited to impart traditional knowledge, history, myths and skills on Saturdays.

Children welcome us with ‘Namaste Bhaiyya’ (Salutes Brother). Fourth standard students greet us with ‘Good Afternoon’. They sing two prayer songs for us. They are shy, but they seem to have developed the confidence to talk to the visitors. You feel a lot good about them.

Suresh Wagmare-The Dogra Expert

We meet Suresh Wagmare. He is a Maharashtrian living here. He runs a Dogra casting unit. He is an artist and designer. There are several artisans working under him. He makes very small sculptures to life size human figures using Dogra casting technique.

The sculpture is modelled in clay and the ornamental details (the lines runs around the body of the figure typical to Dogra style) are added by lining the contours with thin threads prepared in paraffin wax. Previously bee wax was used but as the availability of bee wax became an issue, it was replaced with paraffin wax. Once the model is ready, it is covered with another layer of red clay mixed with strengthening materials so that between the model and the upper layer a hollow space is formed. Through a hole, the molten bronze is poured inside the mould. When the cast is removed the sculpture is read. In this lost wax technique, the basic model and the mould cannot be used again. So each piece remains a unique piece. Suresh experiments with different materials. His works are very much in demand all over India. He travels a lot and conducts workshops and exhibitions in metro cities.

This traditional sculpture making technique comes from the Gond and Maadi tribes. They used to make household utensils with this technique. While they were moving from one place to another, they started making deities and other fancy items using the same technique. Slowly it became a craze amongst the city people as it was promoted by sculptors like Jaydev Baghel and Pandiram.

The word ‘dogra’ comes from the tribal language and it means ‘old man’. “It could be old technique or old man’s technique as old people used to make these sculptures,” Suresh explains. The myth says that the tribal people learnt this technique from honey bees. Once the bees abandon a honeycomb, termites build mud walls around it. Those people who were looking for bee wax found that the wax was formed in the shape of honeycomb as there was an external cover of the termite wall. Myth says the Dogra casting technique came from this discovery.

Shilpigram- A Project in Ruins

Shilpi Guru Jaydev Baghel and well known artist Navjot Altaf started Shilpigram in Bastar a few years back. Their idea was to invite the sculptors and traditional silpis from all over India and conduct workshops and camps here. A few years back Navjot did a sculpture in this campus, which invited a huge controversy.

Navjot’s sculpture is an interesting work of art, which expresses the raw energy of the Bastar people. In this sculptural ensemble in concrete you see a huge man sitting and ogling at a very voluptuous nude woman standing in front of him. On the right side you see a pig couple interlocked in a sexual act. A small boy is about to throw a stone at this blissful swine couple, while his father prevents him from doing it. Two totem poles stand witness to this life drama.

The controversy came when some of the local people objected to the nudity of the ‘woman’ and the ‘interlocked’ position of the pigs. So what we see now is something hilarious. Someone had painted a sari and blouse, draped in typical tribal style, on the woman. From a distance you see a sari clad woman. Once you go near, you can’t do anything but laughing. Besides, the ‘interlock’ of the pigs also is smashed by somebody. So we see two pigs standing back to back, connected with a few rusting iron rods.

I think of the famous sculptor Kanai Kunhiraman’s sculpture ‘Yakshi’ at Malambuzha Dam site in Kerala. It was done during 1970s and it had invited a lot of controversy. But controversy paved way for curiosity and this sculpture, a thirty feet huge voluptuous nude woman sitting with her legs spread and hands thrown back to her head, became one of the most appreciated public sculptures in Kerala. Now if someone picks up a controversy, how would she be clad, I ask myself. “In a churidar’. I imagine Yakshi with a painted churidar suit over her. I smile. We indulge in photography in a way only the males could do.

Hiralal, the Blacksmith

When we reach the blacksmiths’ basti in Jodhar Padar it is already four in the evening. The blacksmiths are there at their workshop, some of them working and some of them just sitting around, gossiping. Somu is a familiar face here. The blacksmiths get up and salute Somu. They shake hand with me and Feroze also. Then Hiralal, a young man of 32 makes his appearance from somewhere. He is clad in jeans and shirt. Somu asks him to give us a demonstration in the making of ‘iron deers’. Hiralal obliges and he changes into a loin cloth.

These blacksmiths are highly skilled artisans and they can make any form from small scrape metals and iron by beating it into shape. These days they make the form of deer. Hiralal picks up a piece of iron and puts it into the furnace. It is now red hot. He picks it up with a tool and starts hammering it rhythmically. In twenty minutes, a small deer comes animated before us. It is sheer magic.

One man makes black tea for us and serves the tea in a cup made up of fresh green leaves. We drink it from the leaf cup with some difficulty. I had used leaf spoons for drinking porridge in my childhood. Now it gives me a strange feeling. We have changed a lot. Hiralal shows us the finished product. It is beautiful. It costs Rs.40. We cannot dispute as we have seen the amount of work and skill involved in the making of it.

These artisans can make a lot of money and they do make it. But the moment they get money, they buy motorbikes and expensive things. Most of the times, they are high on Mahuva, the local liquor. They even marry several times and that is not a problem amongst their community. Hiralal has two wives and they live in the same house. He travels all over India, attend camps and give demonstrations even in the elite schools like the NID. He shows us the certificates given to him by the Kerala Lalit Kala Akademy.

The Treasure Pit and Dev Ser

Behind Hiralal’s workshop, there is a huge pit. Hiralal’s uncle takes us there and tells the story behind this pit. A few years back someone convinced the villagers about a huge treasure hidden there in the land behind Hiralal’s workshop. The villagers came together to dig a pit. They dug for a few months and no treasure came up. Frustrated they left digging. It is almost fifty feet wide and twenty feet deep. “We still mock each other showing this pit,” Hiralal’s uncle tells us with a sheepish smile.

A few meters away from the pit, there is a small forest of saal trees and it is called ‘dev ser’. This is a place where the blacksmiths come to worship their gods. Hiralal’s uncle shows us three trees that they worship particularly. There is a small mud house in one end and a divine couple is worshipped there. “Whenever we want mental peace we come and sit here under the trees,” says Hiralal’s uncle.

Rameshwar Mesari and Gotul

Rameshwar Mesari meets us when he pillion rides on a motor bike to his Gotul. The three men on the bike are pretty much drunk. Mesari knows Somu. He jumps down from the bike and greets Somu. The second pillion rider, an impoverished old man in an inebriated state also jumps down to greet us. He is so thin and wears only a shirt. The tip of his loin clothe hangs between his legs. Mesari lifts him and puts him back on the bike and joins us in the car.

Mesari does not know whether to smile or cry. Inside the car he keeps his mouth closed with palms. He is the ‘adhyaksh’ (president) of a gotul. Gotuls are the community centres, a unique feature in Bastar, where the men and women gather at night for drinking, eating, singing and dancing. Gotul has a thatched house and there is a raised platform with conical roof in the middle of the courtyard. There are several drums hung from the pillars. Mesari performs stilt walking for us. I play one of the drums. Then Mesari goes inside, ties a set of bells and gunghroos around his waist. He comes out and starts dancing. Feroze clicks photographs. We give Mesari some money and he asks for more.

To visit a gotul, you need local escort. We decide to go to see the action in a gotul by night. Hiralal promises to accompany us. But when we go to pick him up, he is already drunk and ‘out of order’, ‘unreachable’, ‘out of coverage area’, ‘busy or not responding now’ and ‘no network’ state.

The Stalker- A Movie shoot

When we left Baroda on 19th February we had planned a short movie in Bastar. The movie is all about stalking. One person feels that he is stalked by somebody. And he does see a man stalking him. But the other person also thinks that he is being stalked by someone else. This takes them into a physical and psychological state.

We find the location near the second gotul and Somu starts recording my walking and nervous looking back. I do the same with him. We choose several angels to do the shoot. And when both of us are in the frame, Feroze handles the camera. He takes a lot of stills also. Hope this film would come out well.

Friday, February 27, 2009

A Bird-hit and Khairagarh University

Khairagarh is our destination today. We are supposed to visit the Indira Kala Sangit Mahavidyalay there. It is one of the reputed universities in India, which is completely devoted for imparting education in music and fine arts. We are told that this university is unique in South East Asia. We are excited to visit this university.

From the hotel window I look at the Central Avenue in Nagpur. There is some kind of serenity about this street. People are not yet up. Up there in the sky I see a crescent moon like a glittering love bite. Why I cannot get out of these romantic and sexual imageries, I ask myself and smile to myself. The greyness of the sky turns slowly into red and it is time for us to leave.

Somu revs up the engine and we are ready to go. We check the fuel level and it needs refilling. It is our fourth filling and we have already travelled around fifteen hundred kilometres. The car gives good mileage. Feroze talks about giving a quick service to the car. We drive towards the west side for a few kilometres, leaving the newspaper boys and milkmen behind. The sweepers are already in action and they broom the last day’s waste away from the streets. Nagpur is a clean city and it is one of the ten top cities in India.

Though it is a thoroughly planned modern city, something is lacking here. Suddenly I realize that this city does not have a precise character. Apart from its cleanliness and ordered nature, you cannot remember anything special here. It lacks in some kind of attraction. A perfect beauty, which can be worshipped but not enjoyed. It is picture perfect and cannot be invited to life. You expect a scar right in the middle of the forehead, or a mole behind the neck, a white spot near the navel, a broken tooth in order to make the beauty enjoyable. You feel like completing the beauty when some minor defects are present. And you like it in that way.

I am told that generally the Maharashtrians do not want their daughters to be married off to Nagpur. They consider Nagpur as too much religion and caste oriented. They feel that there is too much of political intrigue here. However, Nagpur flourishes in its own ways. One cannot deny it.

We take a right turn and we hit the highway. We would find fuel pumps in highway. After refuelling, we resume our journey. The morning is faintly cold and is romantic. There is greenery on the either side of the road. Birds fly in flocks, cattle moves in herds, huge trucks sleep off in deserted patches and the life generally looks beautiful.

We see a lot of cranes flying up and down, right and left along the highway. I remember a power point presentation that Feroze had showed me a day before we started our road trip. It was all about the V formation of geese flying. They fly in a V shape that provides them with an aerodynamic design that helps them to fly effectively. When one of them is injured or tired, he is separated from the flock and two other geese accompany him again in a V formation. When the leader in the V formation feels fatigue, he goes back to the tip and the one next to it takes up the lead. The PPT presentation was meant to explain the natural formula of success, which could be employed in corporate sector.

My mind wanders around the V formation. The stereo plays some good music. Everything looks perfect and calm. Suddenly a flock of cranes cross the road in a very low altitude and that covers the windscreen of our car. We are going on a 100 km per hour. Somu has quick reflexes and he applies break bringing the car suddenly to 70 km per hour. But the last crane in the flock hits the bonnet and the white feathers spread everywhere. We three are shocked. For a moment we could not react. Feroze asks Somu to stop the car. We can see one helpless white wing dangling over the bonnet.

“Is it dead?” we ask each other. After a few minutes Somu pulls the car over to the side. We get down and rush towards the front side.

Oh..God…the bird is not dead. It breaths heavily and rolls its frightened eyes to us. We realize that its beak is stuck into the radiator grill. Feroze carefully extracts its beak from the grill, Somu brings water from the car and I sprinkle water on its head and into its mouth.

Its wings and legs seem to have broken. We are in a dilemma. First we keep it in a thicket. Then on a second thought we feel that it would be attacked by some animals. So we keep it on the wedge of a tree. But then it can fall down from there. Finally we decide to keep it in a thicket.

We stand there is silence for some time. And the silence comes along with us back into the car. We resume the journey, but this time in silence. Somu switches off the stereo. Some kind of disturbance has crept into our minds.

We have to cut around two hundred and forty kilometres. And we are sure to reach Khairagarh by eleven in the morning. The memories of the crane slowly fade away. We come back to our normal selves and we start feeling hungry. By nine o clock we are find a daaba, where several trucks are parked. We too stop there and give order for rotis and omelette. It tastes delicious and the price is eminently cheap.

At the stipulated time we reach the ‘Indira Kala Sangit Mahavidyalay’, Khairagarbh. And instantly we fall in love with the place.

‘‘Indira’ does not mean Indira Gandhi,’ Dr.M.C.Sharma, Dean and Head of the Painting Department here tells us. “Indira was Khairagarh King’s daughter. She died at the age of four. The grieved parents gave away their palace to set up the Khairagarh University devoted exclusively for fine arts and music,” Dr.Sharma says.

Before Chattisgarh State was carved out from Madhya Pradesh, Khairagarh University was the only university that governed all the fine arts colleges in the state. The university, which was established in 1956 has branches all over India including the cities like Delhi and Kolkata.

“This is a unique university because it deals only with fine arts and music,” adds M.C.Sharma.

The building is stately as it was a palace. Pink colour seems to be the thematic colour for all the buildings here. In the large campus that runs into a few acres, has the boys and girls hostels built in. When the university was established all the departments were functioning from the main building, which is the palace. Now it houses the painting department only. All other departments namely, sculpture, graphics, music, folk music, dance and theatre, function from the new buildings.

The painting department was started in 1973 under the guidance of Dr.Bose. It was initially a certificate course and later on it got degree status and UGC recognition. The sculpture and graphic courses were started in 1989 and they got separate department status in 1993 and 1994 respectively.

Pt.Bhimsen Joshi’s musical rendering from the record fills the atmosphere. “It is always like this. The campus always has a musical ambience,” says Shilendrajit Singh, who is a former student and now a guest lecturer in Painting Department here.

Khairagarh University has produced a lot of interesting artists. After their graduation many of them go for further studies in Santiniketan or Baroda. Those who do not want to go out of Khairagarh do their post graduation here itself. All the three departments in fine arts have both BFA and MFA courses.

“We have all the facilities here,” says Dr.Sharma. “The library is regularly updated. The students are familiar with computer and they can access internet throughout the day from within the campus.”

The students work here diligently. And there is a reason for it. Khairagarh is a small place and there are not too many diversions. The students are allowed to venture in the town only till seven in the evening. After that the hostel gates and the campus gates are closed. The students spend most of their time in studios, computer lab or in library. They are well informed about the contemporary art practices.

However, the picture is not rosy as it seems. There are only three permanent faculties here: M.C.Sharma heads the painting department, V.Nagdas heads the graphics department and S.P.Choudhury heads the sculpture department. There are not many guest faculties here. For art history supplementary course, the university invites guest lecturers from Kolkata or elsewhere for a few weeks.

“Nobody wants to come and join here in the departments,” Dr.Sharma expresses his helplessness.

Reason: the university is remote and it is not lucrative as there are no galleries around or the mainstream galleries do not take much interest to come over. Those students who pass out from here and migrate to the bigger cities also do not want to come back and help the departments.

“There are several posts lying vacant. We regularly advertise it. But then nobody wants to come. With the new state in place, there are some posts open for the reserved category candidates. But the rider is these candidates should be originally the residents of the Chattisgarh state. All these factors together make our departments less lucrative,” says Dr.Sharma.

However, there are efforts from the university and departments to gather up the support of the alumni. When the university celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2007, it had done a large group show of the Khairagarh alumni in a travelling show in Delhi. Now the University wants the Khairagarh legacy to travel far and wide and attract more people towards it. It has already planned exhibitions in Delhi, Chandigarh and Ahmedabad in 2009. “We want to tell the world that we exist and we have great reasons to exist,” says Dr.Sharma.

Despite the lack of teaching faculties, the students are very optimistic. “We do a lot of work and we try to keep in pace with the contemporary art scene in India as we have facilities here. But at times we too get frustrated as we are forced to live like secluded people. No artist from the big cities come here and conducts workshops here. No interaction is possible. We keep connected to the art scene only through the internet,” Pallavi Jha, an MFA Painting student opines.

Moving around the campus, we find spectacular facilities in this university. The state government pumps in ample amount of funds in this university. One can clearly make out that it is a cash rich university as each department has great buildings and facilities. Even the guest house and teachers accommodation are just within the campus.

We visit the Khairagarh University Library. It has special sections for fine arts, music, dance, folk music etc. Besides, they have general section for art and literature. The fully computerized audio visual room help the students to watch the movies, dance forms and listen to the music at any a time. There is an enormous collection of Indian classical music and folk music here and it is open to the students throughout the year. Computer lab is another speciality. The university in total has around hundred computers and out of that seventy are connected with internet. Twenty five computers are given to the students in a specially created computer lab, where students learn and even do professional works under the guidance of Prabhodh Gupta, the system analyst.

The library’s data base is connected with the data base of all the major universities in India using a software called INFLIB. Jaymohan, a young computer specialist looks after the library upgrading and manuscript preservation. “Soon the whole library, including the manuscripts will be digitally available on net. We are in a process of converting the LP records into digital format,” informs Jaymohan.

The university also has a museum, which houses the thirteenth century sculptures discovered from around Khairagarbh. There is a special officer to look after this newly built museum.

“There is a lot of politics going on in this university,” says V.Nagdas, who heads the graphics department. “They don’t understand the visual arts. They understand only music. And the teachers ‘buy’ doctorates and become professors and deans. Appointments are stopped because of this fixation with ‘doctorate’, whereas the UGC never in its strictures says that visual art appointees need doctorate. They just need post graduation, experience and acclaim. Here it is a strange story and the university is ruining the fine arts departments,” says Nagdas.

However, he accepts that the university has a lot of financial back up and facilities. Only thing he demands is the appointment of new faculties and the upgrading of the existing ones.
While coming out of the university campus, we have only one thing in mind: this university’s fine arts departments have all the potentials to grow. And it has all the facilities, which even Baroda and Santiniketan lack.

The solution should come from within the university. May be the former students of this university can help it become one of the mainstream fine arts departments in India.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Nagpur Fine Arts-Waiting in Wings

Nagpur comes as a cultural shock to us. After the dinginess and chaos of Ujjain, Indore, Dhar and Bhopal, we find Nagpur an organized metropolis, waiting in wings to get the public acclamation as a metro. Our tiredness after three hundred kilometres of drive disappears as we see the beauty of the city of Nagpur.

The streets are in order. Vehicles ply the road as per traffic rules. The colour of the city is predominantly green as there are trees and parks all along the streets. It is four o clock in the evening and the streets look pretty much empty. Our destination is the Government Chitrakala Mahavidyalay.

Amitesh Srivastava, a young artist residing in Mumbai has already made arrangements for our meeting with the faculty members and the department heads. He has done it all over phone calls and text messages. Thanks to Amitesh we have the correct address of the college. Somu re-charges himself with two glasses of pineapple juice bought from a wayside vendor. Myself and Feroze settle for one glass of the juice eat. Generally we take a light breakfast and skip lunch during the travel and take in a lot of fluids to keep ourselves light and energetic.

The drive towards Nagpur was exciting. After Bhimbedka, Feroze takes the charge of the car. Somu takes rest and I keep the position of the navigator. Though it is called a national highway, it is a two lane narrow road. Heavily loaded trucks move like old people on a morning walk. Feroze does his best driving and on the way we see a few trucks lying tipped in freaky accidents. One place we see the head of a truck perched up on the road and the rest of the body lying in a canal. It almost look like a beautiful girl in bikini in a swimming pool coming back to have a sip from her wine glass. The wet beauty of mangled iron thrills me in a strange way.

When I go to sleep in the back seat, Feroze is still at the wheel. After an hour I get up and Somu takes the wheel and Feroze goes to the back seat. Somu wants to cut the distance as early as possible. He is an aggressive driver. He zooms between trucks and tempos.

“You may reduce the speed a little,” Feroze says from the back seat.

Somu slows down. “I have taken a lot of accident pictures when I was a photo journalist. I don’t like over speeding,” says Feroze.

“Above all I don’t like to be photographed by others when I am on a trip,” I comment. “Feroze is doing the job well. And we don’t need to be featured in the news for wrong reasons.”

The Government Chitrakala Mahavidyalaya is in Laxmi Nagar, just opposite to the famous Diksha Bhoomi, where Dr.Ambedkar had converted his followers into Buddhism. Now the Diksha Bhoomi has a huge dome like structure that reminds one of the Sanchi Stupas.

At the college, the teacher couple Prabhakar T Patil and Manisha Patil welcome us. The annual display for assessment is going on when we are there. The works look extremely refreshing and the final years BFA students works look almost ‘gallery ready.’
“It is quite interesting to see such ‘finished’ works,” I tell Mr.Patil, who heads the painting department. His face glows and he tells us that the teaching faculties are always ready to inspire students to do paintings in contemporary style.

Government Chitrakala Mahavidyalaya is one of the most famous art colleges in Maharashtra. This is one of the three colleges that come under the direct administration of Directorate of Art, Government of Maharashtra. This board conducts talent tests and recruit the students for the colleges in Aurangabad, Nagpur and Mumbai. This institution is affiliated to the Nagpur University and follows the syllabus adopted by the famous Sir J.J.School of Arts, Mumbai.

“This is a strange kind of administration, you may find. But we are trying our best to make this college one of the best fine arts colleges in Maharashtra,” says Manisha Patil, who is a painter herself and an art history post graduate from the Fine Arts Faculty, M.S.University, Baroda.

The library has a lot of books and the students are connected to the contemporary art scene in India. They often travel to Mumbai to attend shows and participate in ‘Monsoon Show’ organised for the students of Maharashtra art colleges. Every year the students from this college bag the major awards.

“We help them to think differently. Though the department has certain limitations to administrative apathy, we don’t wait for the administration to help us in everything. We are practicing artists and all the teaching faculties conduct their own exhibitions. This helps the students to form their future as potential artists. They do not join the course just for a degree,” says Prabhakar Patil.

Though Nagpur as a city has got all the facilities, it does not have professional private galleries or public galleries. There is a huge gallery run by the South Central Zone Cultural Centre under the central government. “But corruption is rampant everywhere in this establishment. So we cannot depend on them. They conduct annual competitions and keep the award winning works with them. Then they sell off the works and keep the money for themselves. They behave totally irresponsibly and even the young students know about it. So the presence of SCZCC does not inspire the students anymore,” says Mr.Patil.

This fine arts college in Nagpur has three departments namely painting, applied arts and art teacher diploma. There are around two hundred and fifty students in this department and twenty five teachers are employed to teach them. There are more girls than boys and their proportion is 60: 40.

“Girls students do not come here to get a degree before their marriage. They are quite serious about their studies. Many of them take up jobs in good schools and many others go for higher education. Some of them become full time artists and the history of the former students inspires the students who join the faculty,” says Manisha Patil.

This thirty year old institution stands in contrast with the fine arts colleges in Madhya Pradesh. The teachers seem to work selflessly to improve the quality of the students. However, it is noticed that when it comes to the gallery recruiting, the students from this college are omitted.
“There is a reason for this,” says Manisha Patil. “The name of the institution counts a lot in the commercial market. Even if we have a similar teaching methodology like Sir.J.J.School of Arts, we don’t have its visibility. We need to gain more name. Our students are efficient.”

Art history and criticism, though not a major paper in the curriculum, are taught in this department. “We try to instil enthusiasm for art history amongst our students. I studied in Baroda art history department and I try to follow the same method here,” Manisha Patil says.

Her efforts have found fruits as every year at least one student from this college opts to study art history in Baroda. “They are vernacular students. They have language problems to study art history. But they try their best and many have gained post graduation in art history and criticism from Baroda,” Manisha Patil’s words reflect her satisfaction.

The students in this college are quite familiar with the contemporary art scene in India. Though the teachers say that the students are not influenced by the ongoing styles of the famous contemporary artists, their works in display prove that they have imbibed the styles of Indian contemporary art rightly.

Thanks to official hurdles computer facilities are not in this college. But all the students are familiar with computer applications. They do try various things out of the syllabus. The teachers themselves participate in art camps and workshops, and exhort the students to attend camps and workshops. There seems to be a healthy atmosphere in this college.

The galleries have not yet started coming to this college for recruiting students from the campus itself. However, friendly teachers, students and artists come to this institution whenever they happen to be in Nagpur. “Though they do not conduct official workshops here, we facilitate interactions with the students and the visiting artists and scholars,” tells Mr.Patil.

‘Grooming’ is the word that Manisha Patil uses for the teaching practice in this institute. “We groom the students in the BFA level and they will be able to get admission in any other college for higher studies as they are well groomed.”

The teachers have transferable jobs. The Directorate of Art shuffles the teachers once in a while and this affect the smooth functioning of the colleges. But the teachers face it in a healthy way. Wherever we go, our concern is students, they say in unison.

There is a special energy in this college and that is quite palpable in the faces of the students who prepare for the annual display, which is opened to the public. At times, the students are able to sell their works for good prices from these shows. They are not worried about the lack of patronage within the city because they find their patrons in the neighbouring Mumbai.

The scenario is very promising. This college has all the potential to be acknowledged as one of the best fine arts colleges in India. What it lacks is an external push. The moment it comes, this college is going to attract more attention than any other regional colleges in India.

Bhimbedka Caves and Radhe Shyam

We say good bye to Bhopal early in the morning. Our next destination is Nagpur. Halim had told us in the previous night that the Bhimbedka caves come on the way to Nagpur. We take the Hoshangabad route and head towards Nagpur. On the way Chintwara comes. I have an association with Chintwara and Nagpur though I have never been to these places before. Mrinal, then girl friend and later wife, had travelled from Chintwara to Nagpur to catch a train to Kerala. She was coming to my house for the first time and I was all tensed up then. I remember waiting at the Kollam Railway station to receive her. She came alone and there were no mobile phones in use at that time.

I look wistfully at the signboards along the national highway. The morning sun runs along with us in the right. I look at the sun. Certain kind of warmth embraces all of us. We talk about the people who worship sun. Feroze mentions those people who come to a park in Kochi, where he goes for his morning walk. These people sit looking at the morning sun and absorb energy from it. The soft rays of the morning sun energize you. Whether you believe in religious rituals or not sun rays enhance your energy level.

We are still undecided about visiting the Bhimbedka caves that comes after twenty four kilo meters from Bhopal. But once we see the signboard of the road that leads to the Bhimbedka caves, we decide to visit the caves. We need to take a right diversion from the national highway and drive for three kilometres to reach the cave site. Between this road and the side way from the national highway there is a level cross. Railroad workers have camped there. They have already started their work. The level cross gate is closed for the passing of a train. Somu and Feroze get out of the car with their cameras to click some pictures. Railway workers pose for them and the children perched on the shoulders of their fathers look at the cameras curiously. I feel sad for a moment. I don’t like to see children suffering.

I mention my private pain regarding the kids to Feroze. And also I mention how the world is full of injustice. “Look, we are in a trip. Back home our children are happy and safe. But look at these kids. They are struggling along with their parents,” I tell Feroze.

“May be they are happy in their own way. They must be thankful to the contractors who give them work. They can earn for their lives. But think about all those people who don’t have any job or any source of sustenance in the remote rural areas. Think about all those people who are forced to migrate to cities,” the former photo journalist in Feroze wakes up.

A train thunders past before us. Our car shakes for a moment with the brutal force of the train. We are now in the way to Bhimbedka caves. Almost a kilometre before the caves a cross bar stops us. It is a check post and nobody is seen around. A lonely dog comes limping towards us. Then we see a boy coming to us. He tells us that the official would be coming in any moment to open the gate. We wait for him and finally he makes his grand appearance on a bicycle. We pay for the ticket and head towards the caves.

It is eight thirty in the morning. The caves are under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India. However, the local administration is done by the Forest Department. They have laid a neat asphalt road to the caves. At the end of road there is a large parking space. We park the car and walk towards a narrow passage that goes between two towering rocks. At the end of the pathway, to our shock we find a shiva temple. A priest sits there and makes rotis. His side kick moves around and performs some chores. On the right side, in a deep cave there is a neat bed room and veranda. Just below it there is a stable that houses around thirty cows. The cows look at us dispassionately.

We feel like cheated. The caves have now become a temple, we think. We ask the sidekick for details. He tells us that we need to walk for half an hour to see the caves. We don’t have much time to spare. We have to reach Nagpur by afternoon. We have to cut around three hundred and twenty kilometres in five hours to catch up with the people who are waiting for us in Nagpur.

With some kind of desperation we drive back and suddenly we see a few people sitting on the right side of the road. And on the right side there are two vertical rocks that carry fading signboards made of bronze plaques. Now we know where the caves are. We decide to take a quick walk around and feel the caves. As we walk towards the caves, a young man carrying a stick joins us without asking. He is a guide and he does not demand any money.

“The official guide comes around ten o clock in the morning. I thought I would accompany you as you have come all the way to see the caves,” he says. We are happy to have him with us.

Bhimbedka caves are around ten thousand years old. They belong to the mesolith age. There are around seven hundred caves in this site. Out of this four hundred are taken care of by the Archaeological Survey of India. And ten caves are near the pathway. They are opened for the public. The other caves are in the inner forest and the public is prohibited from venturing into the forest.

“There are bears in the forest,” the guide tells us. His name is Radhe Shyam and he tells me that he is thirty to thirty five years old. I smile at him. He is not sure of his age. He belongs to the next village. Now he works as a guide in the site. His parents had worked at the cave site during the excavation was on. When he grew up he joined the local workforce, which was drawn by the ASI. Now he is an unofficial guide here.

These caves were discovered by Dr.Wakankar in 1957-58. He made extensive researches in this region and proved that these caves were ten thousand to three thousand years old. Then it was taken over by the ASI. The caves have pictures painted on the interiors that almost resemble Altamira cave paintings in Spain.

Radhe Shyam has a story to tell us about the caves: Dr.Wakankar was travelling in a train and from the windows of the train he saw the rocks at a distance. He was very curious to know about these caves. He got down at the Hoshangabad railway station and somehow reached the Bhimbedka site. He collected some local villagers and made an expedition to the deep forest. The villagers were sceptical about Dr.Wakankar’s act. But they followed him. Finally they reached the top of the hill and there they found a sage sitting alone in a cave. (That cave is the present Shiva Temple). With the help and direction of the sage, Dr.Wakankar found out all the caves.

“I was a child when the excavation started. My parents worked with Wakankar saab. Later I worked for the ASI here,” he says. He shows us the caves one by one. Feroze clicks photographs. We snatch time and pose for some special photographs. Feroze clicks a picture of Radhe Shyam along with me and Somu. I like that picture.

We try to feel the caves. We try to imagine how the primitive men lived here. Radhe Shayam reminds us how these caves were naturally formed thanks to the work of wind and water. “Once upon a time this place was under water. Then the water started receding with a great force paving way to the formation of these caves,” Radhe Shyam explains.

We don’t know whether it is true or not. But we think of the immensity of the water that once covered this area. A sudden fear grips me only to be relieved by the mirth making efforts of Somu and Feroze.

I look at Radhe Shyam’s face from behind my coloured goggles. No special emotion is seen on his face. He must be seeing a lot of people like us every day, I tell myself. “Thousands of people come here everyday. In summers visitors are very less. But people like to come here during the rainy season. This place looks really fantastic during the rainy days,” says Radhe Shyam as if he had read my thoughts.

We say good bye to Radhe Shyam and to the caves. We pay him some money. He is very happy. Other guides jealously look at him.

While driving down the hill, I think of Mrs.Wakankar. Her husband was here once and he opened up this place for the world.

I look out of the car window and fancy that I see a young Dr.Wakankar and Mrs.Wakankar walking hand in hand in the valley.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Bhopal- A Maze of Art Colleges

Bhopal- I cannot look at this city without a smile on my lips. There are two reasons for it: one, my wife, Mrinal Kulkarni belongs to this city. I have come here with her several times, though I don’t know the geography of the city well. I am a son-in-law here and they take care of my visits. I just need to be here. Two, the people of Bhopal are very straight. They express their feelings without any reserve.

We reach Bhopal city around midnight. We had driven a few kilometres extra as we were not only misguided by the people but also by the deceptive road signs.

The streets are quite alive even at midnight. Somu stops the car in a junction and looks out for some ‘responsible’ people around. ‘Responsible’ is his catchword. He asks for directions only to the responsible people. And at times responsible people turn out to be absolutely irresponsible. They will send you thirty kilo meters away from your prescribed direction.

“How do you get to Habibganj Railway station?” I ask someone.

He looks at me and then he peeps into the car and exclaims, “Woh to bahut dur hai!” (It is really very far!)

I burst into laughter. “Man, we need to go there and we have a car. Distance is not a problem for us,” I tell him.

“Go straight and ask someone else,” without moving his eyelids he tells me. Yes, that is an answer.

Our car drags itself to the next person, who seems to be responsible. I repeat the question.

“Poochke Poochke seedha Jao (go straight and keep asking),” he says sincerely.

Soon we are in a wrong road. Someone tells us that there is no way to Habibganj Station. That is a bit too much. But he adds that we could take another road a few kilo meters behind and go to our destination. Then a young boy approaches us. He is an enthusiast. He directs us properly out of a maze of winding alleys. I know he must be moving around in this part of the city like a Romeo. He seems to know each and every small alley here. But he is also of no help.

Then another person offers us help. He asks us to follow his motorbike. We follow him. Then I have this thought: if he gets into his own thoughts and forgets that we are following him what would we do? But after ten minutes he stops his bike and waits for us to pull up to him.

“Take the left turn and from the first junction take right and go straight,” he smiles with his eyes through his face covering helmet. We thank him and Somu steps on the gas. Again we miss a road and we find ourselves in a narrow road. Couple of boys are winding up their business in a makeshift shop. We ask him for the direction.

“Aap kyon ithar aaye?” (Why did you come here?), one of them asks innocently.
“We lost our way. That is why we are here,” I tell him. I cannot but smile at his innocence. He does not mean any harm. He is expressing his desperation on our foolishness.

The boy gives us the right direction and we reach the hotel reception. Halim, a friend of Mrinal’s sister-in-law had already booked accommodation for us. The person who mans the reception counter exclaims, “I was told that you would reach here by 9.30.”

“Traffic,” I dismiss him with one word. Bhopal’s innocence has already started getting into my nerves.

The room is big enough to make us feel in a crowd. But we sleep without counting lambs. Sleep jumps over the fence and embraces us before the lambs do.

At six in the morning we three are up and at our computers. We take a few hours to finish our work and uploading. We hit the road by 11 am. Our destination is Nutan College, almost a two kilometres away from where we stay. In Nutan College, they have a Department of Fine Arts. It is an all women’s college.

We don’t find any men around. We park our car and walk in. There is a security guard at the gate. Interestingly, he does not ask us why we are entering in a women’s college. We walk into a world of girls. At the office we ask for the fine arts department. The guy looks at his computer, searches for the fine arts department and tells us that it is somewhere behind the college.

I could make out the bureaucratic set up that rules the college. And I have a premonition that it is going to be the same story of Madhava College in Ujjain. At the fine arts department Dr.Rashmi Joshi, the department head receives us.

“Beta, the progress of the department depends totally upon the interest of the teachers,” Dr.Joshi tells us. She does not look that old. She calls us ‘sons’. We feel some kind of embarrassment.

Nutan College is one of the oldest colleges in Bhopal. It has three courses in fine arts. BA, BVA and MA. Like many other colleges in Madhya Pradesh, here too painting is one of the optional subjects. BVA is a full time graduate course and is approved by the University Grants Commission (UGC). There are post graduate courses for painting and sculpture. The department is affiliated to the Barkhathulla University, MP. There are around seventy girls studying in this course.

The courses sound great. But we find no facilities around. The students are not allowed to go for sketching expedition as the city is not ‘safe for girl students’. There are two permanent teachers and three guest lecturers. They say that they try their level best to educate the students. But they know there are a lot of hurdles before them.

The first problem Dr.Joshi cites is the step-motherly attitude that the college authorities take towards the fine arts department. “They don’t understand the value of this course. With a lot of difficulty we got the UGC affiliation. But we don’t know when they would withdraw its support thanks to non-performance,” she says. The other department in connivance with the head of the institution put a lot of hurdles for the smooth functioning of the department.

Intra departmental rivalry is one of the reasons that mar the spirit of the students here. Though Dr.Joshi says that there is a good library in the department, we don’t find one. Then we go to the general library and the librarian, a grand old lady dismisses me (as I go into her office to ask for the fine arts section in the library) instantly. “Go and ask the department head,” she tells me. She does not forget to ask me from where I come to her office. I walk out suppressing my animal instinct to tear her into pieces.

Dr.Joshi proudly displays the sketchbooks of the BVA students. They are not up to the mark. Somu starts an impromptu demonstration on drawing. He asks the students to practice drawing as much as they can. They nod in approval.

Students from this college do go to other big universities to take admission for higher studies. Interestingly, there are girls here who have come to study in this college from outstations. Some of the MA students commute between two neighbouring cities as they cannot find hostel accommodation here.

The department has an overhead projector, lap top and model study facilities. But the teachers seem to lack direction. The pass out students from this department either become housewives or they become teachers. There are a few students who go out of the city to pursue higher studies. Some of them join the art groups in Bhopal and participate in shows. Many of them run private art tuition centres.

“We don’t have the facilities here. We need to depend on Bharat Bhavan Library for reference. But we cannot go there everyday,” the girls say in unison. They don’t know the names of the contemporary Indian artists. Their teachers also do not know them. Dr.Joshi admits that there is lack of information. They have internet facilities at college. But they don’t know how to look for new information on art.

Rani Laxmi Bai college, where we go in the afternoon too has similar problems. May be one can make a stencil of problems and place it on these colleges, it will fit in perfectly. “We cannot purchase books for our library as the official asks for commissions from the purchase,” says Dr.Rekha Srivastava, who teaches the Drawing and Painting course, BA and MA at the department of fine arts in Rani Laxmi Bhai College, Bhopal.

At every level the officials are there to make money. So the funds are either lapsed or siphoned out to other departments. Result is the poor state of the library. No information is passed to the students. They actually do not know such information exists. Rekha Srivastava says that she surfs internet for information and her complaint is that several galleries do not update their websites! We tell her that it is an old story and she must be looking at some defunct galleries, which she obviously does not want to accept.

RLB College is autonomous and is attached to the Barkhathullah University. But nobody seems to care. It offers MA in Drawing and Painting. Girls do MA and as usual they become housewives, art teachers or ‘group’ artists. They hang out around Bharat Bhavan and get frustrated. However, the department head Dr.Anjali Pande says that there are several girls from this department who have made their marks in the art scene. She tells me the names and I don’t recognize their names. May be that is my ignorance.

“We do a government job and it is transferable. So we don’t know what exactly would happen in each passing year,” says Dr.Pande. I have heard this several times during this trip.

There are several colleges like this in Bhopal including Gitanjali College, Hamidia College and so on. The case is similar everywhere. There seems to be no end to their problems. May be only when we ask whether there are any problems they realize they have problems. They have complaints on the big city galleries. All of them think that the big city galleries do not give any damn to these small town colleges. That is true. But to get any damn from them one should present the talents from these respective colleges, which at this moment seems very difficult. Otherwise, these students should go out to some other reputed institutions to prove their worth.

By evening we go to Bharat Bhavan, one of the prime institutions in Bhopal. I have been to this place several times before. The permanent exhibition here looks seriously ‘permanent’. None has taken the initiative to re-present the works. The famous works of Raza, Swaminathan, Sudhir Patwardhan, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, Bhupen Khakar and so on are exhibited here. I see several works done on oil crumbling and cracking.

The sad state of the historical works by Sudhir Patwardhan pains me a lot. I think of writing him a mail. May be once I finish this trip, I would write to him about this.

After Bharat Bhavan, I take the charge of the car. Halim is with us. He directs us to the famous ‘bada talab’ (the big lake). We spend almost an hour there. Somu does some on the spot sketching. Feroze is on phone. Clutching at the fences I look at the lake and the yellow light falling on it from the setting sun.

Memories of home come to me.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Phadke Studio in Dhar

“If you are going to Dhar, you should visit Phadke Studio,” before leaving Indore couple of days back many friends had told us.

The name Phadke Studio at once evokes the feeling of Phalke Studio. Your imaginations run backwards, the digital colours of memory pixels fade into chemically washed sepia tones. You linger somewhere around Maharashtra and look for the studios that made silent movies. Then you remember the works of K.M.Madhusudhanan.

Dhar lies south-west to Indore. Located between Indore and Mandu, Dhar is a transit station and most of the people know where Phadke Studio is. Ruled by Dhar Maharajas, the place has a frozen nature of history.

Though it is still winter, days are really hot here. We reach Phadke Studio around afternoon and to our surprise we see three non-descript sheds, which resemble railway quarters, for the famous Phadke Studio. Somu parks the car under a lonely tree and we walk towards one of the gates.

“Hey there, have you come to visit Phadke Studio?” an old man in pyjama and banyan comes out one of the quarters and asks us. We nod in unison. “Give me a minute, I will join you there at the last shed,” he says and disappears into the house. In a minute he re-emerges in pants and shirt. He is a small man and he introduces himself as Krishna Dev, a retired official from Indian Railways. Now he takes care of the Phadke Studio and doubles himself up as a curator and guide. He leads us to the last shed.

Krishna Dev, painstakingly opens the old doors and the panels opens with a creaking noise. Till then we are bit impatient as we don’t know what is there inside. We don’t have any clue about the things that we are going to visit.

Inside the shed there is a veranda kind of room. It leads into a main hall, which is approximately fifteen feet wide and thirty feet long. We look around and we take a few minutes understand what is in there.

If I look for a parallel of what I see, I would say all the displays ‘works of art’ together look like a Bomma Kolu, the kitsch sculptural ensemble done during the Diwali days in North and Pongal days in South. Here we see the portrait sculptures of recognizable and unrecognizable people. Some are larger than life size, some are life size and some are exaggerated and minimized busts; the kinds that you see in city squares and public places.

But they are different in a way. They don’t look like pure kitsch. Academically perfect, these sculptures have caught the personality of the model in a royal way. I see Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehur, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Ram Mohan Roy and all those recognizable figures from our national movement. There are portrait sculptures of Kings, queens, local chieftains and spiritual leaders.

“These are the plaster of paris copies of all what Phadke saab and his disciple had done,” Krishna Dev tells us.

Things become clear to us. This is one of the famous studios in Madhya Pradesh, which is famous for portrait sculptures.

The history of this studio goes like this: the Maharaja of Dhar was a patron of arts. He invited several artists to his kingdom during the first half of the twentieth century. He came across the name of Raghunath Krishna Phadke, who had received the fame as a great sculptor.

R.K.Phadke was an accomplished portrait sculptor. He had a studio in Vasai, Maharashtra. In 1933, one of his creative sculptures titled ‘Tatva Chintak’ had received the Golden Medal from the Bombay Art Exhibition. Maharaja Gaekwad of Baroda had collected this work. Maharaja of Dhar wanted this reputed sculptor as his courtier and he sent the invitation to Phadke.

Meanwhile Phadke was mourning the death of his wife. He was lonely and was contemplating about relocating himself. The invitation from the Maharaja was a blessing in disguise. He decided to shift his base from Vasai to Dhar. The King allotted a small strip of land and three small buildings to start his studio.

Phadke was an accomplished artist. That means, he was well versed in different forms of art including music and literature. Besides, he had got the renown as a great palmist also. With no immediate family members around him, Phadke adopted four boys, who showed artistic talents, from Dhar. These boys were known as Dev Brothers and Mehunkar Brothers.

These four young boys were taught in different areas of art. Two of them became portrait sculptors and other two became musicians. Dev and Mehunkar had trained a few sculptors from the Northern India. Some sculptors from Jaipur were also trained by these brothers, passing the legacy of Phadke to new generations.

Phadke’s studio flourished under the royal patronage till he died in 1972 at the age of eighty eight. His disciples carried on their mission. However, in the meanwhile, patronage for public and commemorative sculptures had diminished considerably. The studio started faring through bad weather.

“Now, the main source of income is from the visitors,” says Krishna Dev. But there is no ticketing system. “The visitors give some money and I never ask for more,” says he.

What about the studio practice? “The studio is almost shut down as we are not receiving any commissions from anywhere,” Dev ruminates.

This studio was once patronised by the business houses like Hukumchand, Mafatlal, Holkar family of Indore and Devas royal families.

Phadke studio used to make sculptures in Marble and Bronze. The modelling and moulding are done in the studio itself. Marble carving also used to be from the same premises. Now fallen from grace, the studio does not have full time artists. However, when a commissioned work comes in they invite artists like Ashok Jaimini from Jaipur. If the commission is for a bronze sculpture, it is done in Kolhapur.
“How much do you charge for a sculpture?” I ask.

“It depends. If it is a two feet tall sculpture, we charge Rs.45000. If it is bronze a few thousands will be more,” Dev says.

I want to tell him that they are abysmally low prices. But he continues, “Now very rarely we get work. If at all we get work, we take the commission and outsource the work.”

The collection of Phadke sculptures need protection, I feel. They may not be aesthetically great. But they have a history of their own. It has a lot to do with the early sculptural practices of Sir.J.J.School of Art. Phadke has affinities with M.H.Mahtre and other sculptors of late 19th and early 20th century.

But nobody pitches in. The city administration seems to be totally unaware of what is going on here. Dev complaints that nobody cares to extend patronage.

Phadke Studio is now run by a five member trust, in which Krishna Dev is a member. The trustees do not seem to have any long time plan for the collection. “It will remain as it is now,” says Dev.

These works need to be documented and preserved. Something which has become just a tourist attraction should be given art historical validation.

PS: There is no electricity in Dhar either. We are impatient as we cannot upload the site and blog. Suddenly Krishna Dev tells that the power supply has come back. Somu asks whether he would allow us to use the plug points in his house for sometime and the old man invites us into his house. Immediately we set up our office there. I start working on my write ups and Feroze continues with his photo editing, which he had left in Mandu thanks to power failure. Somu takes a nap and snores away to bliss. In one hour we finish our work and upload all the stuff from there. We thank Krishna Dev for allowing us to work from his home and give him some money, which he receives with a smile.

Mandu- Rest in Love

From Indore we reach Mandu. Perhaps, this site is not a part of our itinerary. But we need to spend a night and part of the day before we visit the fine arts college and the famous Phadke Studio in Dhar district. And above all we need some rest. Though we feel adequate pumping of adrenaline in our veins, we think it is always good to take rest to prevent premature burning out.

Located in the Vindhya ranges, 2000 ft above from the sea level, Mandu could be reached if you travel southwards from Indore. It was the kingdom of the Parmars during the 11th century. Then the Sultanate dynasty kings captured the place and they ruled it till the advent of the Mughal Kingdom during the fifteenth century. Mandu is considered to be one of the most romantic sites in India and now its sprawling forts, ruins, palaces and other historical remnants are conserved by the archaeological survey of India.

We drive into Mandu along with the setting sun. The twilight hue covers the place immediately. Feroze jumps out of the car to click some pictures of a ruin against the fading sunlight. The contours of the ruin look bleeding as the red rays embrace it with the regular pain of parting.

As we climb the elevated fields of Mandu I get this feeling of déjà vu. I feel that I was here some years ago. Yes, I was here almost fifteen years back with a group of fellow students from Baroda. But I was not registering things then as I used to under the influence of intoxicants all the time. If I was not using any stimulants, love was the permanent intoxicant for me.

We check in Hotel Roopmati. This is a kind of resort where we find a lot of foreigners and holidaying families. The manager does not ask us for our identity cards or addresses. Without the usual formalities he checks us in. This surprises us. It is pitch dark in the room. The room boy tells us that there is a major load shedding in the area. He cannot tell us when electricity supply would be resumed.

We are tired. But we feel like working. We request the hotel manager to start the generator and we get our computers charged. Our urge to work sinks in as we look at the valley behind our room and the starry sky above our heads. We take a couple of drinks and go to sleep.

Early morning we wake up to the regular supply of electricity and to our dismay in a few minutes time the current goes off. We start working with the help of the back up charge. Feroze does photo editing, Somu moves around and do on the spot sketching and I write. We work on a mutually understood deadline. There is a blissful feeling when you enjoy your work without the pressures of external deadlines. You work on your own deadline and you know you can finish it on time, provided the power supply lasts long.

It does not last. We are optimistic and we tell each other that nothing can stop us. We decide to upload the website and blog on our journey back to Dhar district.

It is sightseeing time. We change our gears literally and put ourselves into the tourist mode. We drive uphill again.

Somu suggests that we hire the service of a tourist guide so that we need to hunt around for sites and ruins, and the stories related to it. In a junction, a few young guys approach us. They are tourist guides. We ask one of them to jump into the car. He does it promptly and tells us that he would take Rs.250 for the conducted tour. Somu bargains with him and settles for Rs.150.

Feroze understands Hindi. But he needs subtitles in between. I mean, he needs translation and slow talking. The boy says that he would give commentary in both Hindi and English. Soon we realise that his claim to English is only a few English words that he weaves into his Hindi harangue like a master linguist.

His name is Anand Amzeria and he is eighteen years old. But he looks older for his age with his tobacco stained teeth and tired looks. He is an enthusiast and he wants to tell us stories.

Amzeria takes us to Rani Roopmati Palace. Rani Roopmati was the daughter of a local chieftain. She was believed to be the gift of the river goddess, Narmada. Prince of Mandu, Bag Bahadur falls in love with the talented Roopmati and asks for her hand. She tells him that if he could provide the site of river Narmada everyday, she would marry him. Roopmati Palace is built for getting a view of river Narmada from the heights. In some seasons, thanks to climatic changes she was not able to see Narmada from this palace. So the Prince ordered to build a huge tank to store the water from Narmada. This tank is called ‘Reva Kund’.

Royal people have royal fancies, I imagine. The amount of money and human energy spent on building these palaces are amazing. I imagine Rani Roopmati sitting there, looking at Narmada, singing songs, attending the visiting musicians etc. I cannot concentrate on history anymore.

Rani Roopmati seems to be a high maintenance wife, I think.

Amzeria keeps telling us the stories. The whims and fancies of the kings, the invasions, the legendary escapes, the unparalleled sacrifices, unique love stories, fears, fantasies, intrigues, conspiracies and celebrations. In between he keeps reminding Feroze to take pictures from certain angles, which Amzeria believes would give fantastic results. Thousands of people have taken pictures from these angles and it cannot be wrong- that is the belief of Amzeria. Somu tells him that Feroze is a professional photographer and he knows his angles.

“He has a sense of angle. But has no sense of light,” Feroze comments after clicking a few pictures from the angles suggested by the guide boy.

Then we go to Jahaz Mahal. It is made in the shape of a ship. That is why it is called Jahaz Mahal. This palace is built by King Giazuddin of the fourteenth century to accommodate his eight favourite wives. The guide tells us that apart from these eight wives, Giazuddin had 16008 courtesans and often this palace doubled up as a harem.

“He had Krishna complex,” Somu comments. Giazuddin wanted to compete with Lord Krishna who was said to have 16008 women in his life.

Feroze is thoughtful. He takes out his mobile phone and starts punching the buttons. Then he shouts, “Forty three years.”

I look at him. He smiles and then explains. “If the king visits one woman per night, he needs forty three years to visit all these women.”

“Many might have died virgin,” I say.

For a moment we three become silent and thoughtful. We think about the fate of those young girls in the harem.

“This is a f****ing whore house. Let’s go from here,” I tell my friends, partly joking and partly serious. Enough of history.

Anand Amzeria’s stories seem to have no end. He tells us about the music competition between Rani Roopmati and the legendary singer, Tansen sang a song that attracted a bee into a flower and he sang till the flower closed its petals and made the bee a captive. Then Roopmati sang a song till the petals were opened and released the bee.

Sexual innuendoes. Desires covered in aesthetics. Covert invitations to love.

Tansen sang Rag Deepak. Lights came to life with it. Roopmati sang Rag Meghmalhar. Rains rushed down.

Carnal love embroidered in velvety words. I love this. I feel a burning pain in my bloody brain.

Anand Amzeria recites a few poems for us. One of the poems is about ‘rocks’. If rocks are not there, there are no monuments, if there are no monuments, there is no love, if there is no love, there cannot be Taj Mahal. It is something like that.

Silly me. I could not think nothing but the Hindi film song, ‘Aao sikhaun Ande ka funda’. If there is no egg, there won’t be any chicken. If there is no chicken, there is no marriage, there is no marriage, there is no love. Period stuff.

Down there in the plain, there is a Juma Masjid. I want to go there. Amzeria takes us there. Feroze tells me about the architectural parts commonly seen in a mosque. But Amzeria would like to tell us that it was a Hindu structure and it was converted into a mosque by the invaders. I don’t want to buy that argument. Nor do I want his services to be continued.

“Another Babri Masjid in making?” Feroze asks jokingly.

But it is not a joke. Out there, in front of the masjid there is a sing board which says, “Shri Ram Temple”. An arrow in it points to a village alley behind the banyan tree. That is our culture. We need polemics to survive.

“iske-peeche-se-photu-nikal-sakte-hai,” Amzeria tells Feroze, pointing at a white tomb.

Feroze looks at me for explanation.

“Iske….Peeche……….nikal….sakte…..hai….” I tell Feroze in Hindi, but in a slower pace.

“Ok…” says Feroze. He understands slow speed Hindi. In between he hums Hindi songs.

We leave the old city of love behind. It would be looking great in rainy days as it has a lot of valleys and undulating landscapes.

While driving towards Dhar road I remember the song of Harry Bellafonte. “I am sad to say but I am on my way, won’t be back for many a day.”

But my heart is not down, my head is not turning around. Because I have to meet little girl in Delhi town.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Devlalikar Fine Arts College, Indore

At the Sasakiya Lalit Kala Sansthan (Fine Arts Education Institute), Indore, Madhya Pradesh, a group show of seventy six artists is on. A hoarding outside the hall says that the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh dedicates this gallery to the people of Indore on 9th January 2009. We are here in Indore on the last day of the show. Inside the gallery that reminds you of a little theatre in two floors, seventy six works are displayed. Most of them are abstract in nature but do not look naïve or amateurish. Skill and profession are visible. An urge for experimenting with different techniques and abstract styles is quite palpable in these works. Out there in the front courtyard, the students of Devlalikar Kala Vidhika (Devlalikar Arts Centre), which is the famous fine arts education institute in Indore, display their works in a long makeshift gallery. One can see the affiliations and stylistic continuity in these works too.

This exhibition, which is titled ‘Aarambh’ (The Beginning) has a lot of energy. Perhaps, we have not heard these artists’ names before. They are all the alumni of the same institute. Many have established themselves as full time professional artists in Indore itself and elsewhere in the country. We are here on a Sunday, still we find a few artists sitting and discussing several things at the veranda of the gallery. Local people and tourists come and go. Unlike the other cities that we have visited earlier, here we find a different ambience. People are interested in art.

Devlalikar Kala Vidhika may not be as popular as Sir.J.J.School of Art or Santiniketan. However, those people who are deeply involved in the Indian art scene definitely know the name of this institute. It is here the legendary artist M.F.Husain spent his formative years. He was trained under Guru Damodar Dattatreya Devlalikar, who started this institute as a private art teaching centre in 1927. He taught artists like N.S.Bendre and D.J.Joshi. The institute became famous as these artists earned their names in due course of time. M.F.Husain became the most famous painter in India. N.S.Bendre helped establishing the Fine Arts Faculty, M.S.University, Baroda.

These artists took Devlalikar’s name all over the country. People in Madhya Pradesh, irrespective of their ‘city-loyalties’ admire the contribution of D.D.Devlalikar. Devlalikar to Indore is what Rabindranath Tagore is to Santiniketan.

Amit Gupta, a young artist in his early thirties who currently works in Delhi is in Indore for participating in the ongoing show. He is an alumnus of this college. “Devlalikar started this academy in 1927 in a small building right across the road,” he points at the other side of the busy road where all kinds of vehicles ply flouting all the possible logic of traffic.

“Later, Maharaja Holkar gave this building to Devlalikar to continue with his institute,” Amit continues.

The Holkar kings of Indore were seriously interested in art and they patronized many artists. Artists, writers, intellectuals and bureaucrats from Maharashtra region came to Indore to receive the Holkars’ patronage during the 19th century itself.

Right in the middle of the gallery, you see a bronze bust of Devlalikar. I remember the bust of Tagore done by Ram Kinker Baij. The reverence and energy of the artists who had done these busts are quite palpable.

The architecture of the gallery is interesting. It has two storeys. The ground level gallery is a neat white hall with slender pillars supporting the high ceiling. The second storey is just a balcony space that runs above the three sides of the hall below. I find a row of steps running along the balcony space. It obviously looks like a theatre.

“This building was the Navagraha Temple built by the Holkar family for the public of Indore. There used to be a lot of theatre and dance performances conducted during their reign. Basically it was a space for worship and art,” Ismail Lahiri, an alumnus of the institute, who now works as a cartoonist for the Dainik Jagaran newspaper.

Till 1980s the Devlalikar institute functioned from this building. Later with the state government taking charge of the institute, it got a new building just behind it. Since then this has been used as a gallery. A few years back, the structure of the building started showing weakness. Architects were brought into reinforce the structure. It took two years to renovate the structure. Now it is a full fledged gallery and the people in Indore seem to be quite proud of this cultural wealth.

Devlalikar Fine Arts Institute offers BFA and MFA in painting. There are around seventy students studying here in different batches. Till 1965, when the Indian states were not marked out with linguistic parameters, the examinations for this institute were conducted by the Sir J.J.School of Art, Bombay. In 1965, it was affiliated to the Khairagarh University. The Government of Madhya Pradesh demarcated Dhar, Indore, Jabalpur and Gwalior for four fine arts institutes to teach painting, graphics and applied art and sculpture respectively.

Interestingly and ironically, Devlalikar Fine Arts is now administrated by two different establishments. The first year examinations are conducted from Gwalior under the state government’s ministry of culture. MFA is still affiliated to Khairagarh University.

“This causes a lot of inconvenience. Students have to run between Khairgarh, Gwalior and Indore,” says Amit Gupta. “We want all the examinations to be conducted by the cultural ministry or the Gwalior University,” Amit continues.

Artists and intellectuals in Indore have been campaigning towards this for the last few years. And Amit is sure that in the recent future itself Gwalior will be the administrative centre for his alma mater. “Things are now moving fast and we are hopeful about it.”

There are four teachers in Devlalikar fine arts college and this includes the principal Sasikant Mundi also. Karan Singh, Braj Mohan Arya and Kamal Verma are the other teachers. They are all serious about their teaching and inspire the students to work hard. However, there are enough roadblocks for them too.

“Library facilities are minimum and there is no internet service in this college. Whatever books available are looked after by one of the teachers. There is no librarian and there are no annual purchases. We want the library facilities to be enhanced,” says one of the teachers requesting anonymity.

Later I speak to a few students from the MFA course. They are full of energy and optimism. Small town complexes do not seem to hold them back. They come forward to talk and most of them travel quite often to the big cities like Delhi and Bombay.

“Yes we know that our library is poor. But we are exposed to the contemporary art scene through internet and catalogues. We don’t have internet facilities in the college, but we use it outside. And we get catalogues and information through the city based professional artists who travel quite often to the cities,” says Ashish Tiwari, a MFA first year student.

In Indore, by evening most of the artists, writers and other cultural enthusiasts come around the college. As usual they discuss art, art politics and share anecdotes and gossips. But these activities keep the art ambience proper and energetic. “We hang out with these seniors and that is quite important for us,” says one of the MFA students.

We meet another alumnus of the college, who has come to meet his friends here. He works as a full time artist and he is confident that he can pull off things by doing art alone. At times he does commissioned works and earns money to pursue his individual career as an artist. “This city is not expensive. So I can lead the life of an artist,” he smiles.

One need not spend a lot to be an artist. One just needs to have the attitude. I am surprised at the energy level shown by the Indore artists and art students. Ujjain has more facilities as a city. Ujjain is the cultural capital of Madhya Pradesh. But the students and faculties are lethargic there. In Indore it is a different story. Each student shows a future promise. And all of them are ready to launch themselves to a full time artist career.

Lack of library facilities and departmental apathy have created some kind of hurdles to the smooth functioning of this institution. “We need more facilities and circumstances to have more intellectual discussions. We teach them technical skills. But that is not enough for the students. Their thought process needs sharpening. They need to get into reading and thinking. They should understand the changing contemporary world,” admits Braj Mohan Arya, who is a faculty member.

The proportion between the boys and girls are almost fifty fifty. Girls in this institution do not shy away from art activities. They participate in exhibitions and debates. They travel in and around the city with the teaching staff. Study tours are conducted regularly here.

“The things could be improved if the Central and state lalit kala academies take interest in bringing exhibitions here. They should be conducting camps and workshops regularly in Indore so that the city and its people along with the students would be benefited,” opines Amit Gupta.

Indore artist community has a demand. It asks the Central Lalit Kala Akademy to start a research centre here at the Devlalikar Institute.

This is a valid demand, I feel because you don’t have any written material available on the life and times of Damodar Dattatreya Devlalikar. Research and documentation centre is a must not only for Indore but also for any other city/town in India where people have sacrificed their lives for establishing art institutes.

Indore fine arts students give us a lot of hope. They are taught only painting. They don’t have any facilities to do cutting edge art. However, they practice to think out of the box. Many students have cameras and modern gadgets. They indulge in making video art and photography. “We don’t know how strong we are, but we have the aspiration to do things,” say the students.

Indore makes me happy as I am reminded of my Trivandrum days.

PS: In the exhibition hall at the Devlalikar Fine Arts Institute, I come across the works of Mohan Malaviya. He was an alumnus of this institute. I met Mohan Malaviya along with another artist Siraj Saxena (again an alumnus of Indore) in Delhi in late 1990s. Mohan had a strong abstract language. Siraj worked in ceramics. We used to bump into each other in openings and at times at the K.S.Radhakrishnan’s studio in Delhi, where they used to come to show the works to the master sculptor. Mohan was picked up Delhi’s Art Alive Gallery and he was doing quite well. Last month I came to know from Siraj that Mohan had died in an accident in December 2008. It was a shock for me. His motorbike collided with a truck and he died on the spot. He was on a vacation in Indore, his home town. Mohan’s work here suddenly brought all those memories back to my mind. I stood in silence before his works for sometime. Mohan’s friends later told me that they were planning to do a commemorative exhibition.

Damodar Dattatreya Devlalikar brings another picture in my mind. His son, Manohar Devlalikar was in Delhi for a long time. His mind was imbalanced. He used to spend his time with the students of the National School of Drama and the regular visitors in Central Lalit Kala Akademy. He sang well and talked to young people like an enthusiastic art lover. He used to go really mad at times. There was nobody to take care of him. Finally he died like a destitute in the Delhi streets. I think, his death was mourned only by a few youngsters. Artists like Inder Salim Tikku, Shantanu Lodh, Sushil Kumar and so on were his friends. Whenever I go to the Lalit Kala Akedmy canteen, I look for this man even today. But he is dead and gone.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Crumbling Institution thanks to Neglect

At the age of 81, Mrs.Wakankar looks alert. Her body is fragile as the old photographs framed and arranged on the decoloured walls. But her mind is very alert. She has some difficulty in speaking and you need to sharpen your ears to listen to what she is talking. She welcomes us to her humble room. Against the blaring sounds of brass bands down there in the street, we tell her why we are in Ujjain.

Almost eight years back I had come to this place, Dr.Wakankar Sodh Sansthan (Wakankar Research Institute), a three floor building near the heart of the Ujjain city. The landmark is a decorated clock tower building and the place is known as ‘Tower’. The clock shows seven o clock and we are standing before it at 12.30. The city administration seems to have no interest in preserving its heritage. Life goes on around it without heeding to the plaints of an ailing clock. May be people like us only would notice it as we are strangers to the city. Some one tells us about a petrol pump, which is next to the research institute. But the petrol pump turns out to be as unnoticeable a thing as a pan shop. It has two small vending machines; one for the petrol and the other for diesel. No big vehicle can fill gas from here. Feroze likes it and he clicks his camera away to bliss.

First time when I visited this research institute with my wife Mrinal Kulkarni and her brother Manoj Kulkarni, Mrs.Wakankar was looking healthier. Time has ploughed through her body by now. Mrinal and Manoj had studied painting under Dr.Wakankar, when they were kids. Now as we are here, I remind Mrs.Wakankar whom everyone calls ‘Vehni’ (elder sister in law) or ‘Thai’ (elder sister in Marathi), about my former visit. She smiles at me and wonders how we three, me from Delhi, Somu from Vapi and Feroze from Kochi got together to conduct a tour like this. Now it is our turn to smile at her. She is motherly and benevolent.

The discoloured walls of her two room apartment on the left side of the first floor of the Dr.Wakankar Research Institute tells us the story of the neglect that she faces for the last few years. Dr.Wakankar Research Institute was the dream of Dr.Wakankar, one of the most daring archaeologists and art history researchers in India. He found the Bhimdedka caves in Madhya Pradesh. Being a strong RSS follower, he was not supported by the central or state government, which were mostly headed by the Congress leaders. Against all odds Dr.Wakankar worked towards his goal. He became a part of the Vikram University and set up a museum of his findings there. He worked with the Oriental Research Institute of India for several years.

Dr.Wakankar’s intention was to set up a full fledged research institute in Ujjain and he was successful in establishing the centre in the middle of the city. Late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had asked Dr.Wakankar to shift his loyalties, which he refused to do. She was reluctant to acknowledge his services. However, the Congress government had to confer him with Padmashree during 1980s. He passed way in 1988.

The decline of the research institute started in 1990s. The institute now houses the research materials of the late scholar is opened for the scholars who do research in the concerned areas. One of the family members mans the institute, which is losing its attraction fast. There must be reasons for this decline. The Wakankar estate is now family property and with no one to heir this adequately and professionally, it has just reduced to a lucrative real estate. Mrs.Wakankar is the last woman standing to protect the legacy of her late husband. But once she fades from the scene, there are all the possibilities that this golden treasury of research materials going into wrong hands. The neglect that the building faces is out of the lack of interest from the decision making people. Mrs.Wakankar says that she gets no grant from the government or from the university for which her late husband had worked selflessly.

Mrs.Wakankar, however is not desperate. She does not lose her grace while discussing the matter with us. This former Magistrate of the Juvenile Justice court knows how to deal with the situation. But she does not have the energy to fight with the establishments and deaf bureaucracy any more. So she leaves it there. But she is sad for one reason. Dr.Wakankar, a pure Spartan in his life style, used to impart art education to the young people in Ujjain. He taught many youngsters who later became accomplished artists and scholars. Mrs.Wakankar feels sad for the disinterestedness shown by the ex-students of Dr.Wakankar. She had treated all of them like her own children. But now the mother in distress is not attended by any of her famous kids.

The institute was flourishing as an art training centre during 1970s and 80s. Everyone in North India knew about this art training institute. The students from this institute were allowed to sit for state level examinations that gave them diplomas. These diplomas were sufficient enough to get a job or a get an admission for higher studies. Self less people gave their services to the institute by contributing in several ways. But with Dr.Wakankar’s death things changed considerably. Mrs.Waknakar feels that the government should now take care of the institute.

“I don’t complain. But nobody helps. May be people have lost interest in this institute,” Mrs.Wakankar says. But that is not true. People still take interest in this institute. Some parents in Ujjain send their children to study painting in this institute. But their attendance is sparse and irregular. There is no regular teaching system either. One huge institution is withering away here and nobody would like to look at this side. Mrs.Wakankar at the dusk of her life looks at us and tells us to go and visit Vikram University Museum, which her husband set up. “I don’t know they are interested to show it to anybody or not. But if you insist they would,” she says.

While saying good bye, I bend down and touch her feet. She blesses me. Feroze trains his camera at one of the pictures of Dr.Wakankar framed and kept their on the wall. Mrs. Wakankar comes to him and asks, “how do you three guys from different parts moving together?”

Feroze smiles and clicks a beautiful picture of this grand old lady.

Later we visit Kalidas Akademy. Ashok Vajpayee, who now heads the national lalit kala academy was the person behind the establishment of this institution. Supported by Madhya Pradesh government, things look smooth here. R.P.Sharma, the exhibition co-ordinator talks to us and informs us that the Akademy is not interested in modern art as its focus is on crafts and tradition. We see several sculptures and paintings done by traditional artists in and around the building. Some are in the neo-classical academic style. That has become a part of our art tradition!

We start our drive towards Indore by evening. We reach Indore by six thirty. We move around the city, negotiating the traffic which is in snail’s pace. We look for a decent accommodation in one of the hotels. But all the hotels are full as the marriage season is on. Some hotels offer accommodation but they want us to check out at 9 am. That is strange. Twelve o clock is the usual checking out time in all the cities. But in Indore it is different they say. That is really funny.

We drive to the outskirts and find a so so hotel, which has a big rooms and a lot of power plugs. We are happy and but to our dismay we find only one plug is functional out the many. But we don’t have any other option. We have a light dinner and we sleep in no time.

Our next stop is Dhar district.

PS: Looking at Feroze in the morning is very interesting. He keeps working on his computer or camera. If not he is looking at his mobile and finding new properties and features of it. Feroze is a ‘mobile workshop’, I comment. Then Feroze tells me the story of another photographer who always repairs things. This man one day invited his friend for a photo shoot together. They were supposed to go on his motor bike. When the friend arrived, he found two wheels and a skeletal frame of the bike. Rest of the bike was in two iron vessels. But the friend told him that the bike would be ready within ten minutes. And to the friend’s surprise, the man fixed his bike in ten minutes by assembling all what was scrambled up in the two vessels to the skeletal frame. And they did go for the shoot on the appointed time.