Mu Chi has turned up again after many years. These years have changed him. He no more walks with that cultivated slouch. His eyes are more open. Not narrowed into pincers like they used to be. He no more carries his camera round his neck to record whatever he sees.
The records are no use when they are too many, he says. It takes you a lifetime to put them in order. And another to reconstruct their meaning. So I rarely use the camera now. I travel to see things with my own eyes. The eye keeps what it wants to keep and leaves what it wants to leave. The eye behind the eye. I no more want anything that sticks around for long. Just long enough to turn me on. And keep me alive and kicking.
Your zen ideas, Mu chi, I tell him. No more mine than yours, my friend, he replies. The seed thought comes from your land. This time I am here to visit your Buddhist sites. To see how they keep that sense of wakeful emptiness under a sensuous wrap. Like a white lamp burning in a dense forest glade. I like this tantalising contrast.
And for your information I have walked out of my monkish robe. Back home I have even a girl friend now. Who plays the samisen.
She is wonderful. When she plays I see a white lotus rise before my eyes. Whose petals drop out one by one with each ripple of sound. And sail away like little boats of light. Carrying your weight away. (Here is a romantic Jap for you) Mu Chi then starts looking at my recent paintings. And mumbles out his comments, as he usually does. Looking at you from time to time to see whether you agree or not.
Often there are things you can agree with. Even something you had not thought about. Other times he blows up things out of proportion or flies at a tangent. I take one with the other. And rarely intervene.
Your paintings this time are like tapestries. Of loosely connected scenes or stories. Little incidents with different dates, locations, implications, with some points of contact. In that painting Banquet I see a landscape with peacocks on trees. Side by side one with no trees but crowded with statuary. Then below a lush banquet where the main dish seems to be a stuffed peacock.
Your national bird. With its peerless grace. And plumage where the blue of the sky meets the green of the land. Whose each tail feather ends in a flamboyant eye.
Ah! Mu Chi you are getting dithyrambic.
He does not pay any heed. I have read somewhere that these many symbolise wisdom. The ability to see things from many sides and angles. A fitting emblem of your old, wise and mixed up land.
Tell me, he adds, did you not play with this image once, years ago in a time of crisis? Showing a limp (woven) peacock pelt on a black cloth as a silent comment on the national predicament? That was long ago. Do you mean something here too? Seeing I don't respond, he adds with a sly grin, like saying your people are trying to trade a stuffed peacock for, say, Kentucky Fried Chicken?
I can see something in your Ratha Yatra painting too. At one time a grand ritual bringing the gods to the earth. And pulling them on the street in a fablous chariot, a colourful mountain on wheels. By common effort, mixing the high and the low. But now a hollow spectacle to regale the onlooker. Your chariot probably holds some reference to your nation state. It has many towers. It is bedecked with fighting colours. It waves many flags. It is loud. It is noisy. It is drawn by rows of featureless people. Its wheels are askew.
Mu Chi is irrepressible; he digs his snout in and throws the earth up to the right and the left. Hold it, Mu Chi, I say. Don't overdo it. Even if I may have read something into the 'rath', your over spelt details are spoiling the fun.
Sorry, sir, no offence meant, says Mu Chi with an outlandish flourish. Since you are averse to talking about your own work, I step in. I agree I am clumsy. But I enjoy this pecking around.
Now tell me something about the paintings Avatars and The Fiddler. I know avatar means something special in your languages. Manifestation? I say, you can call it that. But these manifestations are not willfully evoked or put together. They come out of my doodles. While doodling, images metamorphose, lose or gain identities, change identities, become composite. We are used to viewing apart a thing and its shadow, differentiate a human being from animal, man from woman, even raise controversies about their relative rights. In the doodles there are no barriers. In truth even in life many contrary traits coexist. I find that interesting, says Mu Chi. One of my teachers used to say there is an animal in every man and female in every male and vice versa. He was greatly amused by discussions focusing on species, ethnicity, gender and the conflicts in between. Conflicts there are. And all kinds of exploitation of man by man, woman by man, poor by the rich, people of one colour by another. This has to end. The best way to do this is by spotlighting what is common, instead of what is different; not working up a biological divide. There he shoots off at a tangent.
Mu Chi, this is too much to deduce from an ambivalent representation of an ardhanarisevar in the corner. In any case let us pass on to The Fiddler. It is simpler. You cannot read much into it. Some months ago some persons organized a concert by a pop music conductor of some reputation before the Taj Mahal. I saw it on television. I am no connoisseur of music and can't comment on its class, though I enjoyed some of it. There was a bumptious and athletic violinist in this group who caught my attention. She played with great verve and elan. Dancing her bouncy body and shaking the bunch of stringy braids she had worked her hair into. It was amusing to think that her kind of energy could even charm the royal ghosts out of their marble tomb.
But, Mu Chi, this is my side. But there are other sides to each work that grow out of the responses of the viewers. So all these details are not of great significance. May be each one can see in it his own configuration. This can be enriching to the artist himself. To know more about what he does.
And so, says Mu Chi with a smile, you suffer my comments. I see that your Masque and Yellow Street are also concerned with the hide-and-seek of identities. Producing images you have referred to as bahuroopi in some place. Playful, poetic, polyvalent. Shooting off from the crass to the refined, from the profane to the sublime. The scenario of the Calcutta street. Incredible place. A bizarre installation in itself; enchanting and exasperating at the same time. Thronged with pimps, prostitutes, politicians, policemen, cloud-capped intellectuals. Then at the corners a naked black goddess who puts out her tongue at you. Or that ubiquitous Durga armed to the teeth, charming and aggressive at the same time.
Your other three paintings seem to be taken with the passage of time. The Spring Interior is a patch work of reminiscence. The Circle poses side by side a picture of death and a picture of maternity, and a bewildered waif in between. The Annunciation has on it a distinct shadow of the Pieta. Or evokes a mixed feeling; is it a message of hope or a warning?
Mu Chi, I say, you are driving into reminiscence. I was the last son of ageing parents; so grew up with an obsession with death. And as part of a kind of joint family saw birth, death, grief, rejoicing at close quarters. Slowly I got used to the idea of their dual presence and came to accept it with equanimity. This comes through in some paintings of mine. And occasionally make me depict the Christ legend in a personal way. A new born Christ marked with the cross. Ordained to die (be it for the good of mankind). If we remove this proviso, we all are, for that matter. Knowing this gives you the ability to view whatever has happened to you, or is happening to you, with a sense of amusement.
Mu Chi gets up suddenly and says, now I have to go and catch the train. I enjoyed being with you. We will meet again someday.
I say, bring your samisen girl along when you come next.