The first milestone in the dawn of my memory is the clock. Its shape and sound rhymed with the first beat of my consciousness. This old clock was already there when I was born. When the first veil of mist dissolved in my mind, the dial of the clock appeared as a mystical Yantra, a diagram of unknown power. Its finger made victory signs every hour. The ticking of its shining pendulum was like the sound of the horse hoof in Durer's etching, Death Carrying the Coffin. In my childhood this ticking was indistinct and far. But today it sounds distinct and near. This clock must have watched me as a crawling infant. After many years, I brought it to Delhi as the only memento of my ancestral home. By this time it was totally old and worn out. It had also forgotten to mark the hours with its musical chimes. Someone in my family had crudely painted it black. I was pained to see the first object of attention in my life so much damaged. With loving care, I removed the dirty peel of color, sandpapered the moth-eaten frame and polished the clock with wax. Even though it regained some of its old majesty, it was not the same clock longer, more like a patient under dialysis. Now, I have to nurse the clock every day. Any negligence on my part, and the hands get entangled and stop ticking. Sometimes in delirium, it can even strike thirteen.
Back in my hometown, in the house where I was born, this clock shared the company of two other objects. There was a large oleograph print of Mahalakshmi with a heavy wooden frame. In the corner of this faithful representation of the oil painting, there was a flourishing signature that read 'Ravi Varma.'
The decorative tail end of the 'R' ended in an oar shape, as if the whole name was rowing in water like a tiny little boat. The plump and buxom Mahalakshmi sstood on a lotus which appeared as a wooden jetty fenced with petals all around. How the heavy goddess balanced herself on an equally heavy lotus with such a slender stalk was a mystery to me. The goddess was pink-complexioned and wore a red silk sari in Maharashtrian style. Years later, I saw such beauties in Lajpat Nagar market, wearing nylon saris.
Another object along with the clock and the oleograph print that held my fascination, was an oil portrait of my granduncle which altered the course of my life and made me choose the career of a painter. This painting was the only relic, which my father brought to our house when he sold all the property that he had inherited from his uncle. According to the matriarchal system, as my grandmother's elder brother, he was the Karanavar, or head of the family. No wonder his portrait was painted in the true style of Ravi Varma, the 'Grandfather' of Indian art in Kerala. I had always reacted towards the work as a painting and not a portrait of my granduncle. He looked like a native seen through the eyes of an Englishman. He had a round tuft of hair neatly shaven, like a traffic island, tied on the top of the head as a girl going for a bath. He had a dignified, round face with two sparkling diamonds in his ears. The portrait showed him only upto the chest, with an angavastram with gold border thrown round his shoulders. The angavastram parted in the middle like a curtain at the beginning of a drama. The most fascinating part of this painting was the treatment of the complexion of my granduncle, who must have been twice as dark as me. His gleaming black oily skin was painted with wonder of wonders -crimson lake. Disgusted with one of my works, F.N. Souza once remarked, "How could you use such crimson lake?" Elementary, my dear Watson, this is the secret I learnt from my granduncle's portrait.
When one has no ancient proverbs to quote, create a new one. "Artists develop their egos first and talent later." It seems that, at quite an early age, I had developed my ego well. My granduncle's portrait was a challenge to my genius. Like any other artist of today, I wanted to demolish the old. decadent values and establish new ones. So every day, my granduncle's portrait and I looked at each other like two Japanese Sumo wrestlers waiting to push the other out of the ring. But to meet this challenge, an artist needed materials and that too of fine quality. I had often heard a strange remark from my first art teacher in Kerala while proudly showing me his paintings. "I could have done much better paintings than Raja Ravi Varma. Only His Highness had the best imported hog hair brushes and colors from Windsor and Newton." I was in a similar situation. The only color box available belonged to my brother who was qualified to get it just because he was elder to me. My brother was affectionately nicknamed as 'The Miser'. Scarcity of materials during the Second World War seemed to have had a profound impact on him. He would not only cut a notebook of ordinary size to make four postcard size ones, he even reduced his handwriting to such an extent that one needed a magnifying glass to read it. But his handwriting, though tiny was exquisite so that I always thought that he was a reincarnation of the Persian calligrapher, who wrote the miniature Quran. It was natural that he would keep the color box in the secret vault of his almirah and the key in his pocket. I carefully planned to break open the almirah, take the color box, use it and keep it back as if nothing happened. Finally, the great day arrived with family members going out somewhere leaving me alone in the house. I was elated at the thought that at last the time had come to replace the worn out values of art and create something which could be called avant-garde. I successfully broke open the almirah and took out the coveted treasure. It was a pathetically cheap watercolor box with tiny and thin slices of colors pasted on the tin palette. Out of fear that it might be finished, it seems that my brother never used it at all. As my parents might return soon, I knew that there was not much time left for me to establish myself as a painter. By placing the chair on a table, I climbed up and removed the oil painting from the wall. Even though it was a medium-sized, heavy looking painting, I found it reasonably light. My whole plan was to paint something much better on the reverse of my granduncle's portrait and establish my identity. Only, I did not know the difference between oil and watercolor paint at that young age. With a blade I cut the canvas from the edges of the frame and reversed it. With great excitement, I started painting furiously with a chewed stick of coconut broom, making holes in the color slab. Alas! My quest for identity was over in no time. Like pissing on the sand, whatever color I applied rapidly disappeared on the unprimed surface of the canvas. Ten or fifteen minutes of futile 'action painting', but it ended with no result. I was terrified. I realized the great crisis of identity. From a great artist, I suddenly felt like a burglar coming out of a bank vault. The only thought, which haunted me, was how to hide the damaged oil painting before my parents returned. I hid the cutout canvas, stretcher and frame in the attic, behind the china jars filled with mango pickles.
I would like to add here for the benefit of future research scholars of art, that the crime was soon detected and the culprit brought to book. The first award I received for painting was six solid strokes on my bottom.
In the heart of the house, the room in which I was born was affectionately called the 'black chamber.' Surrounded by rooms on all sides, sunlight did not enter this room even at noon. This dark room, it seems, was specially designed for the frequent deliveries that took place in our house. We were living with numerous relatives and their children and our house appeared more like a primary school than a home. Whenever I slept in this room I used to have some of the craziest dreams that any surrealist painter could ever imagine. They made me wake up at night and cry. The main images which appeared in my dreams were the technicolor snakes which could have been painted by some of the modern masters of art, like Matisse and Bonnard, with bright dots, strokes and textures in all shades of bright colors, including cerulean blue and turquoise green. I really do not know how I saw so many snakes that would stand around me and command me to sing. One night my mother found me singing loudly, a composition of Tyagaraja, in an almost terrified voice, taught to me by my music teacher. These snakes were quite menacing and would spare me only when I obliged them by singing compositions of South Indian classical music, which they preferred. In real life, it was repeated by my Mathematics teacher, who used to ask me to sing whenever I fared badly in the examination, and gave me grace marks to pass. This defective method of teaching made me permanently weak in mathematics.
Attached to the backyard of our house, was a long stretch of land full of trees with thick undergrowth. Extending to the top of the hill and gradually reaching the slope, the thick growth of plants and trees looked like a miniature Amazon jungle. Trees of different shapes and shades, plants and creepers growing underneath, ending up with a thick bamboo grove, created a fantastic collage of various hues and tones of greens. Against this tapestry of greens with patches of sunlight strewn around, I first saw a pair of birds of paradise as though they had flown alive from a Chinese painting. They reminded me of two kites floating in the wind, their long tails like silk ribbons against the patches of green.
On the top of the hill grew a huge cashew nut tree with its branches sprawling around, covering a large area. It was one of the biggest trees on our land and it appeared like a small fort perching on the top of a hill as found in a typical Rajasthani landscape. Below, the darkness produced by the spreading branches, which almost touched the ground, the dead leaves made a thick carpet on which one had to tread carefully because of poisonous snakes. My ambition was to climb to the top of this tree and look around. I could never manage to climb to the top in those days. But even from the lower branches, one could view distant paddy fields, the hills and blue silhouettes of the Western Ghats. From this view, a part of the landscape is vividly clear even today. I recall a jungle of wild trees forming a backdrop for the snake temple, in the middle of which jutted a dead tree like a hand stretching out to the sky.
Talking of the great cashew nut tree, I am reminded of a passage from Vaikom Mohamed Basheer's classical novella Childhood Friend. This existentialist 'Devdas' of Malayalam literature describes the childhood of Majid and Suhra, the main characters of this novel. Majid climbed on top of a mango tree and looked around proudly. Suhra, being a girl could not climb even though she very much wanted to do so. She asked Majid, ' what can you see from there?' Majid had the habit of climbing all the mango trees of the locality. Holding the top of the branches of these trees and peeping through the foliages to the opening of the sky was one of his favorite games. Sitting there, he would dream of the world beyond horizons. His dream was interrupted by Suhra, who would shout from below, "Can you see Mecca?" Imitating the cry of eagles, circling around clouds, Majid would answer singing, 'I can see Mecca and also the mosques of Medina. When I grow up, I will go away from here to the far corners of the world. "And run back home every night for dinner," Suhra would add mockingly. Looking around from as far as I could reach, I also felt like going far away to the four corners of the world. I really did go far away from my place, but never managed to return home for dinner. My ambition was to climb to the topmost branch of the tree. But when I grew big enough to reach to the top, the tree was cut down to make more space for the tapioca plantations.
Only during the Onam festival, were we allowed beyond the confines of our land to collect flowers. Early one morning, I ventured to the other side of hillock where we were forbidden to go. The hill was steep, running vertically down-to a long stretch of paddy fields below. If one slipped a bit, one could fall and land in the paddy field, sixty or seventy feet below as there were no large trees around this hill. This place was called the 'Blooming Hill'. From a distance, it looked as if blotches of red blood had been sprinkled on the dark green foliages. The tufts of the shrubs covered the entire area with branches of tiny red flowers like thousands of Kremlin stars. Down below, in the middle of the paddy fields, like a piece of broken mirror lay a tiny, little pond. In this pond, a crimson water lily floated conspicuously like the vermilion dot on the forehead of a newly married bride, wrapped in a green silk sari. I was both fascinated and terrified by this fantastic beauty of nature. It seemed as if some mysterious spirits were lurking over this hill. The atmosphere was similar to that of the ghost story The Willows. I felt the irresistible desire to go down and pluck that single crimson water lily. After many years, the blooming hillock had completely disappeared as also the lily pond with the red water lilies. The 'Blooming hill' was covered with tapioca plantations and the pond was swallowed by the expanding paddy fields.
Every artist paints a Mona Lisa in his lifetime. It took Leonardo da Vinci twelve years to paint this great portrait whereas I was barely twelve when I painted my Mona Lisa. This title may be confusing to some readers. Some of you may think that my Mona Lisa was a pretty girl with rosy cheeks and an undying smile on her face. But she was past her fifties when I painted her. She was our maidservant who used to come to the house at five o' clock every morning and sweep the entire courtyard. She would also draw hundreds of buckets of water from the well to fill all the copper pots and cauldrons for the innumerable inmates of the house to bathe. She had lost one eye and as a result, her other eye gleamed and smiled when she spoke. She wore a dhoti and rarely covered her breasts which drooped downwards like those of the famous Kali bronze. She tied a towel around her head while working and she was the only woman I saw in my childhood who smoked. We had a 'love-hate' relationship between us. I disliked her for two reasons. One, she often teased me saying that I was, in fact, her child and my mother had bought me for just five rupees. I did not mind being her son. But I thought that she sold me too cheap. I was not very fond of going to school and would hide when it was time to go to school. On these occasions, she acted as a CIA agent chasing me out of my hide-out, lifting me above her head holding both my legs and hands so tightly that all my efforts to kick her and scratch her were futile. She was indeed a tough woman. She would humiliate me by carrying me to the school in the same manner with my grandmother leading the procession with a long stick in her hand. This scene was watched by numerous neighbors and passersby. Their mocking comments and laughter still echoes in my mind. The actual name of my Mona Lisa was Narayani but calling her name thousands of times a day made it sound like 'Nareni' meaning rope ladder in Malayalam. Once Nareni caught me scribbling on the wall. 'Why don't you do my portrait, instead of spoiling the wall?' she asked sarcastically. I took up the challenge because I had just acquired a watercolor box as a gift from my uncle, I remember the long lecture that my uncle gave me on the value of the color box almost hinting that I should carefully use it throughout my life. When I returned with the precious color box, my Mona Lisa had arranged her turban and was standing with a patronizing smile on her face. I made her life size portrait on the wall with Indian red and black, which must have looked like a Byzantine fresco copied by a child. For historical purpose, I may add that this painting must still be there in our old house at Attingal, hidden beneath at least twenty layers of whitewash.
A genius cannot be hidden for a long time. My art activities practically covered all the white walls of our house for which I often used to be chastised. During one summer vacation, partly to save the walls and partly to encourage my talents, my father decided to send me to the one and only art school in our town, The Lilavilas Painting School. My father bought large sheets of papers and himself bound a volume for me and together we marched off to this school. It was a one-man British Academy run for students who aspired to become Drawing Masters at schools. The cheerless looking boys sitting in front of a still-life arranged by the teacher was the main feature of the school. A permanent object as a part of the still-life was an earthen pot with a long neck. The mouth of this pot was so peculiar and the students labored too hard to get its precise shape by erasing a hundred times that they often made holes in the paper. My teacher would then say with a sarcastic smile, "Now that you have made a hole, You can also pour water inside." Even though he was very strict with other students, he was surprisingly kind to me. I had told him, at the time of joining, that I did not want to do any Art Master's course like 'lower freehand' and 'upper freehand' and 'lower drawing' and 'upper drawing'. I even refused to follow the tradition of Raja Ravi Varma, a style which he himself followed ardently. By the time I joined this art school, I was well acquainted with the works of the Bengal School painters by constantly going through the bound volumes of in our house. My teacher allowed me to do whatever I wanted and what I tried to do in this school were highly wishy-washy versions of the wash paintings of Bengal School. My teacher would often joke affectionately, "For better effects, you can always take your paintings with you when you go to the river to bathe."
Attingal, my place of birth, was a small principality once ruled by the Rani of Attingal. A cluster of temples and a small, beautiful palace were the only remains of Attingal's past glory. But after its annexation to Travancore, every year the Maharaja of Travancore offered puja at the main Devi temple and resided in the palace complex for a week. This was a celebration we never missed. Someone would lift me high up above the temple walls to have a glimpse of the Maharaja following the deity through the outer courtyard of the temple, to the accompaniment of soldiers, dressed in their strange outfits along with musicians and caparisoned elephants. Today, the memory of this ceremony appears like a colonial painting of the late nineteenth century.
Among the cluster of temples scattered in the palace complex, the Krishnaswamy temple with indigenous Kerala architecture has a close personal association with me. My mother used to tell me that it was in this temple that my annaprasana ceremony was held. Speaking of annaprasana, I am reminded of another custom of touching the newborn baby's tongue with honey and gold. The sharp undercurrent of sarcasm and black humor in my words and images makes my wife Chameli believe that someone must have made the mistake of touching my tongue with a mixture of honey and chilli immediately after my birth!
The Krishnaswamy temple was on the top of a hill. One had to climb a flight of broad stone steps, which gave a panoramic view of the massive gateway, similar to Japanese temple gateways. In front of the temple stood a huge flagstaff covered with copper sheets. The base of the flagstaff was beautifully sculpted with Astadigapal or the eight guardians of cardinal points. The strong memory of these bronzes was rekindled many years later when I was moulding wax figures for a group of bronzes, entitled Night for my Yayati series of works, to the extent that I even used oil lamp pedestals as a part of my sculpture.
Kerala temple architecture is totally different from that of Northern India. I am amazed at the accessibility of the gods to the public in the North; that they can even be touched without impunity This over-exposure of gods to the public and their proximity have made them more political than spiritual. On the other hand, in the Kerala temples, gods are remote, hiding within the dark precincts of the garbhagriha. Only their faces were remotely visible to the onlookers when the heavy wooden doors are opened for a short time during the morning and evening pujas. As a result, the darshana of the gods at the time of arati was not only a memorable but also a mysterious experience. I wonder at the theatrical devices used in our temple rituals creating the special kind of psychological effect to evoke the spiritual experience. I think that some of the best specimens of art 'installations' can be found in our temple rituals, against which contemporary installations stand feeble and contrived.
As a child, when I followed my mother inside the dark temple, I had to be careful not to fall down or hurt myself because of the different levels of the temple floor and the innumerable balipithas scattered in the dimly ]it courtyard. Like a monkey hanging from the branches, I used to be more suspended by my mother's fingers rather than walking with her. For a child, it was a strange experience to be led into such a mysterious environment where every sight, smell and sound gave an eerie feeling. The deafening sound of the bells, drums and the nagaswaram, echoing and re-echoing in the corridors, the unusually small wooden door opening into the dark interior of the garbhagriha, the view of the shining face of the deity wrapped in red cloth and flowers, vaguely discernible in the light of the oil lamps and the chanting of the people around, eagerly straining their necks to catch a glimpse of the god are some of the random pictures of the Krishnaswamy temple deeply etched in my mind.
Strangely enough, my earliest awareness of our pictorial tradition is also connected with the Krishnaswamy temple. Whenever my mother took me around the garbhagriha for the customary perambulation repeated three times before approaching the main door, I used to stare at the garbhagriha walls with immense curiosity. In the dimly lit courtyard, the walls looked like a rich tapestry of color patches. I was too young to identify the innumerable images, entangled with the fabric of colors like the kaleidoscopic view of butterfly wings. Many years later, when I went to study art at Santiniketan and saw the copies of Ajanta and Bagh, as well as the original wall paintings of Nandalal Bose and Binodebehari Mukherjee, with a very strange sensation in my heart, my childhood memories of the walls of the Krishnaswamy temple were rekindled with a very strange sensation in my heart.
Hanging on to my mother's fingers and stretching to catch a glimpse of the main idol at the time of the puja, my attention was always diverted by two huge wood carvings of Dvarapalakas on both sides of the garbhagriha door. Resting on the maces and gesturing menacingly, they looked down at me, their teeth protruding, in alignment with the curve of their mustaches. Frightened by their gaze, I used to wonder why the god had such fierce bodyguards who scared away their devotees not unlike the present day 'black commandos' of the V.V.I.P.'s ! Many years later, when I joined the Ph. D. program in Santiniketan and chose Mural paintings of Kerala' as my subject I visited the Krishnaswamy temple as part of my research project after an absence of two decades. I was anxious to recheck the memory of the many-colored tapestry on the walls of the garbhagriha. To my astonishment, I identified fragments of two important specimens of Kerala murals of the 16th and 18th centuries. But the Dvarapalakas really disappointed me. Now that I was grown up and tall, they had shrunk in size. The entire perspective had changed and they were no longer menacing. They looked more like the attendants standing outside the offices at the Central Secretariat. After the integration of Travancore, Cochin and Malabar states, the royal families surrendered most of the temples to the Kerala government. In that process, the Krishnaswamy temple became the property of the Kerala state and some overenthusiastic Government official renovated the temple to make it 'modern', fit for the present day devotees and covered the murals with red Snowcem paint!
When I reached the final year in school, terrible things started happening in our house. One by one, our relatives started moving out with their children. Even my grandfather and grandmother left. My elder brother and sister had already left for the city for higher education. Only my father, mother, younger brother and myself were left in that sprawling house which suddenly became gloomy and inactive like a mill during a lockout. My father incurred terrible financial losses in his business and he was planning to sell the house and other properties and leave the place of my birth, Attingal.
The last day in the house where I was born is still vivid in my mind. I remember getting up early in the morning and walking through the long stretch of land we owned till only a few days ago. The long rows of healthy tapioca plants, so lovingly planted by my father, brushed against my naked legs and moistened them with early morning dew. I ran up to the top of the hill with a stifling sob. I looked at the silhouette of the Western Ghats and the stretched out hand of the dead tree against it. Fondling the leaves and foliage, I came back sad and depressed to see my mother carrying my younger brother, ready for departure. All the furniture was piled into a large trunk together with the pans. I sat with my father and mother along with the driver in the front seat. Someone placed the old clock on my lap and put the pendulum in my hand. The last image of our departure was my mother's tearful eyes and the grim face of my father. Only my baby brother was sleeping calmly, unaware of the catastrophe that had befallen us. When the engine roared the truck moved, raising a heavy curtain of dust that defused the stone street lamps in front of our house, something strange happened. A bundle of ripe arecanut fruits tied in a cloth kept on the top of the other things became loose and fell on the road rolling around like golden eggs.
On my lap lay the clock, like a dead fish staring at me with round eyes, immobile. I was holding its heart in my hand which was ticking no more; probably that was the frozen image of my childhood.
(Originally written in 1983 and revised in 1994)