A 1/51 Panchsheel Enclave
New Delhi 110001, Tel: 6461132
It was you who did the writing while we waited to see what you had to say about us in your columns. In the early 1950s hardly any art was sold. Even your critical approval didn’t do much to convince people to buy, though they all came with approving and disapproving faces. None of us even expected economic benefits to flow from your pen. What we received and valued was your critical appraisal which was tense and frank but never brutal. You were only writing the truth when you once commented on my poor drawing. I never told you this but for four years after your comment, I abandoned all colour and worked at what was weakest in my pictorial vocabulary. I must have produced dozens of paintings in umbers and blacks. Years later you commented on the strength of my drawing little realizing why and how it had happened.
Most unfortunate were the events which brought you to Bombay, but out gain was incalculable. The timing seems in retrospect to have been just right. Souza, Raza, Ara had formed the Progressive Artists Group. It provoked hostility but, at the same time, it attracted artists with modernist inclinations. Your encouragement and espousal of the works of these artists fortified their position. The academicians of the Art School perceived a threat in modernity and the dean forbade its staff and students to have anything to do with these artists. Even now at this hopelessly late stage, there re murmurs of the damage done by ‘Western’ ideas. Now, some 40 or more years later, when the apparent modernity of art has become commonplace, it is difficult to imagine the initial resistance to it. I sometimes wonder what you would have thought of the current proliferation of what passes as modern art. ‘It’s academic’ you would say. Academisim, far from denoting a particular style, was an attitude of mind for you. When a style congealed into a mannerism and became impervious to change, it spelt death. You celebrated the forces of life whenever you found them, in ancient art or modern, in Europe or in Asia. The term ‘globalism’ which is so current now, had not been invented in your day.
No one can forget the formidable defence you put up in the case of obscenity against Akbar Padamsee who had shown an innocuous painting entitled ‘Lovers’. You placed the court in a most awkward position by producing photographs of Khajuraho and Konarak. It was put in the most embarrassing position of either sending Akbar to jail and denouncing our ‘Ancient Indian heritage’, or accepting Akbar’s painting as a valuable addition to that heritage. Akbar won out, so did you and all of us. It has become case law now, which means it is forgotten and can only surface when someone in the same or similar predicament goes to the courts again. Them as in power now still use repression. Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh is under a blackout here. We haven’t quite got to the public destruction of books but have developed far more insidious means of gagging. You would have recognized the scent. I suppose this tussle will be never ending and visions of an egalitarian and a wise and just society are Utopian dreams of the naïve. Depressing thoughts indeed which are apt to paralyse creativity?
Maybe one should also concern oneself with beautiful objects and weave in and out of works of great craftsmanship which we rightly or wrongly believe will endure even our troubled times. You certainly had passions which I couldn’t quite understand at first. For instance, your great love for Ganjifa playing cards. Beautiful they surely were and your collection, made with such patience and expense, was probably one of the best in the world. You were not only satisfied building and owning the collection, you went on to learn the many games which were played throughout this country. I bet you too could play a crafty hand. You lectured on the subject and became a prominent member of Ganjifa Societies in Europe and held meetings of delegates from all over Europe. It amused me as much as it baffled me till I realize that I was guilty of trying to make you conform to a one-dimensional image, that of a standard bearer of modern Indian art.
Gradually and over a period of time and in many places - Bombay (now reverted to as Mumbai), Madras (Chennai), Delhi, Shimla, Bhopal and Vienna, your other interests unfolded. Mangoes! and how you loved them. I almost came to believe that gorging on these was a prime passion and even thought that your annual visits, always coinciding with the mango season, were to quench your lust for what you said was the most noble of fruits. Your wanderlust was something everybody knew about. You thought nothing of going to the most inaccessible of places to see an old sculpture or a disused and ruined temple. Sleeping under an open sky and eating what the local population would provide with relish. My grandmother who had performed every pilgrimage which a good Hindu is expected to make, couldn’t match your score. You seemed to take it all so blithely. ‘While Lolly and I were trekking in Kashmir, we spent a day climbing Hara Mukh’ as if that was some little hillock on your way. So when I expressed my surprise at your prowess for climbing, you came out with a long list of places which you said you had to traverse as a part of your doctorate in geology. My goodness, I’d always thought you had a doctorate in art history.
Do you wonder at my surprise when you told me that you were going to settle in Paris on retirement from Voltas? I had the cheek to tell you that you wouldn’t be happy. After all, what had really mattered to you was right here in the country which had adopted you. True, you might not have a mansion to live in and you wouldn’t be an official burra sahib but you could have a barsati and a host of friends who would never abandon you. Your circumstances were such as to leave you no choice. You went and I am sorry I was right. I could never see you as a Parisian. The informality and ease to which you’d become accustomed was not to be found again. Your enthusiasms for Ganjifa, for modern or ancient Indian art found few takers and you were never one who found solace in anonymity. Sadly and happily, you had to leave Paris and move to Vienna, that ‘city of a Million Melodies’ as the song would have it. Even there you found the entrée difficult. Established and ancient cultures are way and self-preserving. I found it difficult not to smile when you told me that the ‘von’ before your surname was a great asset in Vienna. So they have a caste system too, I thought. You were at an age when it’s altogether more comfortable and convenient to go along than to do battle on a new soil.
You cultivated the biggest and brightest begonias I’ve ever seen, tended a lawn which skirted the Vienna woods and made friends with kindly neighbours. What a changed scenario I thought. Of course you were lonely though you wouldn’tadmit it. You couldn’t fool me with all that scurrying around and gathering Ganjifa enthusiasts who would arrive with their secret knowledge of the game and probably muttered ‘no bid’.
Seeing you leading this somewhat solitary existence, I asked you what would happen if you took ill. You guessed what was on my mind and pointed to be neighbours next door. ‘They look in frequently’, you said. Yet when the angel announced his entry, there was no one. You had realized as much. With your usual efficiency and eye to detail, you bade the Angel wait, called up the medical emergency, donned on your greatcoat, your muffler, your fur cap, your gloves, kept the door open and sat down beside the telephone and waited. That’s where they found you, all ready for your journey. They tried but couldn’t bring you back.
Someone called me the next morning, I think it was Lolly and I felt the last lines of The Exile’s Letter which you so loved:
And if you ask how I regret that parting
It was like the flowers falling at Spring’s end
Confused, whirled in a tangle.
And now the things and people you so loved are scattered and you rest with your ancestors in Partenkirchen.
Au revoir dear friend, may we recognize each other, even in our different shapes, in our future lives and continue where we had left.