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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 14, november 1-15, 2009

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Nostalgia: My introduction to a Madras icon

A bigger-than-life Devi Prosad

On the Bookshelves

  Nostalgia: My introduction
to a Madras icon
(By Geeta Madhavan)

My first train trip to Madras is the one I don’t remember. Mother told me that when I was yet a newborn and became less mewling though yet suckling, I was dutifully wrapped into a bundle and carried triumphantly like a trophy to meet my grandparents. I was born in Calcutta and had to be transported all the way to Tuticorin to meet them. Naturally, I don’t remember the trip, although my parents dutifully recorded it with a box camera for posterity. So, there is in the family archives a picture of a skinny infant with kohl-lined eyes and a huge black index fingerprint on the cheek to ward off the evil eye. It is obvious that, like all mothers, my mother too thought I was the most beautiful thing to appear on earth and had to be protected from what the Psalmist calls the arrows that fly by day.

Central Station, a Madras icon

The first train trip I do remember was from Ranchi to Madras as a five-year-old. Father announced that he had booked the tickets for our travel to Madras and thereon to Tuticorin and we would be spending six weeks in the South. We would travel by the Grand Trunk Express, arrive at Madras Central Station, then take a taxi to catch the metre gauge train from Madras Egmore Station to Tirunelveli. Our bogie would be delinked and sent to Tuticorin at the Maniachhi Junction (if my hazy memory serves me right).

Although there were still a couple of weeks to go, Mother immediately started her packing: packing for the trip was for her a massive military manoeuvre. First, the steel trunks to travel in the brake-van were identified, then the smaller suitcases to be stowed under the seats in our compartment were chosen – one for each person. And at least two extra trunks were assigned for all the extras we needed to carry.

The last to be packed were the three hold-alls. For the uninitiated: these extinct pieces of luggage were basic bed rolls with two huge compartments at either end. After they were stuffed with odds and ends (so that they justified their name), they could be rolled into one massive bulging roll and strapped tightly and swung over the shoulder and carried around by sturdy orderlies. Mother first spread from end-to-end a thin mattress in each one. She then stuffed one end (where the head would rest) with the pillows and sheets and the other with towels, rubber slippers, shoes and several other pairs of footwear wrapped in brown paper bags (the ubiquitous plastic bags had not appeared yet to ruin our planets) and toilet kits. After a final tug at their straps, these were lined up with the rest of the luggage, which was now a dozen or more pieces.

On the day of the journey she added several baskets: into one went bottles of pickles and jams, another contained steel tumblers, plates, spoons, knives, and other useful implements, and yet another contained the huge steel carrier of cooked food for Day One of the journey and several steel boxes of the less perishables for the rest of the journey. The final item was the clay jug (surayi) for storing water (which would have to be filled at the stations whenever the train stopped long enough). If someone had told us then we would one day pay money to buy water he would have been drummed out of town!

Father proudly added to this assortment his small Hitachi transistor to keeping abreast with the news for five days. It was not only Royalty in India who moved around with their princely possessions in those days, the average Indian, too, moved around with all his household goods. The argument put forth by Mother when Father glowered at the growing pile lined up against the living room wall was that it was not he but the train that would carry it all!

We travelled First Class in a train saloon which consisted of a small room with four berths and an attached bathroom. As a senior government officer, Father was entitled to do so at a time when no one had heard of flying. We lived in this little moving house for four days.

* * *

On the fourth day we chugged into Madras Central. Ah, the sound of Tamil: the porters shouted as they jumped into the train even as it slowed to enter the designated platform. They wore red shirts and red shorts which were covered with grime and each had a brass amulet proclaiming his status as an authorised porters. A faded blue cloth adorned each one’s head like a quasi-turban. This cloth, I later saw, was rolled into a cushion when the porter heaved the heavy boxes onto his head.

Saar, which is “our luggage”, asked one porter as if he had known us for decades. Another quickly laid claim to us and they verbally slugged it out. They got abusive by the minute and I hid myself behind my mother, wide-eyed and scared of those red demons ready to kill each other. I listened to the coarse words I had never heard my parents use and never quite got their meanings till much later when I became an adult. I was shocked to see them liberally use second person singular (nee) while addressing my father and expected Father to thrash the rude and abusive fellows. I was initiated to Madras Tamil that day and to my tender ears that had only heard the softness of the Tamil as spoken by my parents, the rude words were frightening in their vehemence. But Father was touched by the Tamil camaraderie and beamed.

Everything was quite orderly till everything was unloaded and then suddenly it was mayhem! The three porters (while Father kept yelling, unheeded, that he needed only two) distributed the luggage all over their bodies. I watched with awe as they became the balancing acrobats in a circus with the trunks on their heads, suitcases on top of the trunks, holdalls over their shoulders and their arms hung with the baskets. They looked like some fantasy trees that had grown luggage on their limbs.

Mother went crazy trying to keep track of the luggage as they suddenly broke into a trot that soon became a high speed canter. The porters, it seemed to me, just wanted to grab our luggage and run away. Mother dragged me along in top sprint, yelling at the porters all the while to slow down. They ignored her and Mother, dodging passengers and other obstacles on the platform and, with me in tow, picked up speed, all the while keeping an eye on the bobbing suitcases. Father dashed behind the other porter shouting a warning to Mother not to lose them. Mother thrust the transistor into my hands and shouted at me to hold on to it. It was sheer pandemonium and I was convinced I would get lost or get trodden over by other passengers rushing around in a similar fashion, each one after his or her luggage.

We finally emerged from the station gates and the running porters eventually, to my panting mother’s relief, stopped and dumped our luggage on the ground. One shouted that he would fetch a taxi to take us to Egmore. Another lectured Mother, informing her they were licensed porters and would not steal our luggage unlike the unlicensed rascals who prowled around. Father arrived with the other porter and Mother promptly started counting the pieces of luggage.

I was exhausted by the sudden change of tempo, plonked myself atop a trunk, placed next to me the transistor I had been hugging and began gawking at the crowd that seemed to be moving in all directions at the same time, so many human beings rushing like ants in and out of anthills.

Mother finished counting and asked me to hand her the transistor, but when I turned to pick it up, it was gone! Bedlam all over again: Mother yelled at me for putting it down, Father yelled at Mother for putting it in my hands and not taking care of it herself, and I howled in self-pity and as a release from the traumatic experience of the day.

* * *

We were once again besieged by porters who wanted to know what had happened. At that point, Father lost all his love for  his beloved Madras and went into a tirade about how we came from the North to our beloved land and the first things we found were thieves and rascals. This stirred the Tamil chauvinism of the crowd consisting of porters, taxi drivers and vendors and several took off in different directions stating they would find the thief, thrash him and bring us back the lost transistor. The drama had now expanded to include the other passengers and a policeman who appeared on the scene in knife-sharp, starched shorts that flared out like a short skirt.

The moment Father announced he was from the military, things changed. Some in the crowd spoke of the shame of treating thus a returning hero who was serving his country so far from his hometown, while others pointed to me and said I would develop an inherent hatred for all Tamils and turn into a Northerner. It went on, with each having his say, till a couple of porters dragged a sorry looking tramp by his frayed collar with the Hitachi in their hands. I breathed again. The pleased crowd doled out more advice. The policeman wanted to know if Father wanted to give a complaint, also reminding him helpfully that it would mean he would have to postpone his onward journey and go to the police station with him. He sounded concerned about our vacation, but Father caught on that he really wanted to avoid all the paperwork. Refusing to pursue the matter further, Father thanked the nabbers. The police­man said that he was the one who had sent them to find the thief (while he stood next to us!) and Father should give him something (that universal euphemism for, say it not!) as well as reward the nabbers.

Father pulled out his wallet and with that seemingly innocuous gesture the floodgates of greed opened. The three porters demanded their share for chasing and apprehending the thief. Another appeared with a bleeding toe and stated that he, too, had run to catch the thief and had stumbled and fallen. Had he not been injured in this brave attempt, he would have been the one to nab the rascal; he now needed money for medicine. Another chipped in that although he had not chased the thief, he had dutifully stood guard over the other things. He was the one who had named the possible suspect, making it easier for the others to grab the rascal. The list of those to be rewarded grew by the minute.

Seeing Father helpless against the onslaught and money being splurged, Mother who had been silent till that moment lost her temper and turned into a veritable Kali. Hell certainly hath no fury like an Indian housewife who suspects she is being swindled! The porters who had been pushing each other to grab the money took to their heels and the cop cowered. Father looked at Mother with new respect and I felt safe in the world again with my heroic mother by my side.

* * *

We gathered our numerous trunks and holdalls and baskets and Father tucked the Hitachi under his arm and quick marched the entourage to the waiting taxi to get to Egmore. As we left, I stole a quick look from the speeding taxi window at the stately red structure and the spire with the clock and knew I would never forget my first introduction to this Madras icon.

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  A bigger-than-life Devi Prosad (Part II)

I loved the large terrace in front of the room where Kalida and I lived in Madras. The terrace had a low protective wall on all sides and was surrounded by tall coconut trees. Paniker, Paritosh Sen and Kothandaraman often came to see us in the evenings. We would sit on the low wall talking and listening to the soft murmur of the sea breeze blowing through the swaying leaves of the coconut trees. Sometimes I would play an evening raag on my bamboo flute and they would listen quietly, sitting like shadows in the gathering darkness of a matchless Madras evening. Kothandaram, Paritosh, Mukundadeb Ghose and Dutta, an engraver, shared a three-room upstairs flat in Pudupet, not far from where we lived. Paritosh and Mukundadeb were good cooks and quite often on holidays we used to get together at their place for lunch. On one such Sunday morning a whole lot of us had gathered there.

Devi Prosad Roychoudhury.

Paritosh was cooking khichri with vegetables and Mukundadeb was busy making tea. The rest of us were just gossiping; “I really miss Gopal Ghose,” Kothandaram said. “Old Gopal, what a wild character and what a dedicated and wonderful artist. There is nothing more important to him than painting. He was possessed like some of those French chaps you know – Van Gogh, Gauguin. You know Sushil, he used to live here with us. There must be a cart load of his sketches still lying around somewhere. He used to go out to the villages and bring back a bundle of water colour sketches every day. Made us feel like lazy louts: Walking around eight to ten miles in the hot Madras sun, can you imagine the intensity of his inspiration? Choudhury heard about it and bought him a brand new bicycle. Good chap, our old man, Devi Prosad.”

“Yes”, Paniker said, “Gopal is not only talented but is also very sensitively aware of his special gifts as an artist. However, sometimes the way he acted was simply hilarious although he himself always appeared to be very serious. One day after a matinee show in George Town we both went to Harrison’s and had a couple of beers. It was late in the evening when we were returning home on our bicycles. Near the fruit market a policeman stopped us and asked us to light out lamps. Gopal, all of his five foot thin body straightened up and stiff, told the policeman, “What? Do you know who I am? I am Gopal Ghose the painter. Look at my eyes. They can see light better than anybody, the subtleties of light and colour, the mystery of tonality which you silly fools can neither see nor dream of. Go away, I tell you it’s not yet time to light our lamps.” The tall and hefty policeman was mad. He caught hold of Gopals’s thin wrist in a tight grip and shouted at him, “Ennada Thiradan – stupid thief, periya artist ni? Vaada Gosh vaada.” He wanted to take him to the station and charge him for obstructing justice. I had to plead with the policeman and tell him in Tamil that Gopal was a little off his nut. He finally let us go. Just a drop of alcohol and Gopal thinks he is six feet tall. Great chap, I miss him too.

Gopal Ghose later became one of the better known painters of India. We were good friends and whenever I visited Calcutta he was always very nostalgic about his art school days in Madras and remembered Paniker, Kothandaram and the other artist friends. As he grew older, Gopal Ghose started drinking heavily and ultimately died a very sick and lonely artist. But those of us who knew him well will always remember him as an intense personality and a true bohemian.

Mukundadeb Ghose was a friendly person but in some ways he was also a very funny man: We knew that he was not a homosexual but he used to dress like one, put rouge on his cheeks, lipstick on his lips, surma in his eyes and would act in a very effiminate manner. He was worried about finishing school and starting life as an independent artist. It was not easy for artists those days. “You know chaps,” he said, while brewing tea for us, “I’m finishing school this year, and don’t really know where I’ll go or what I’ll do for a living. I don’t have a home. I need some money badly. Devi Prosad has very kindly offered me an excellent commission. His friend Mr. Iyengar – you know the lawyer and collector of South Indian bronzes – wants a series of paintings inspired by the Kama Sutra but done in very realistic style. I need models for that you know. I’ve Thelma, she is quite willing to pose, but where can I get a man? I need a man and I’m willing to pay him well. Can anyone of you chaps tell me where I can get a sporting stud?”

Biswamohan Sen, the Oscar Wilde expert, said, “My goodness man! It’s a great offer and I’ll be glad to accept it. Why not? Combine business with pleasure and incidentally help a friend in need.”

Biswamohan’s acceptance of Mukundadeb’s offer was incredible. Paniker asked him, “Biswamohan, are you serious, man?”

“Of course, I’m serious, Paniker,” Biswamohan replied. “You know what Lord Henry says in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray? He says, ‘Pleasure is the only thing worth having a theory about. But I am afraid I cannot claim my theory as my own. It belongs to nature, not to me. Pleasure is nature’s test, her sign of approval. When we are happy we are always good, but when we are good we are not always happy. Sin is the only real colour element left in modern life.’ So my dear friends, I accept Mukundadeb’s offer wholeheartedly. I’ll sin, I’ll have my pleasure, be happy and be good.”

Biswamohan Sen finally gave up art as a career. It was for the birds, he told us, for utter fools who glorified poverty and misery for the sake of art, or for the rich like the Tagores, who could afford it.

Several years later, he came to visit my wife and me with a basket of fruits which must have cost him quite a bit of money. He was doing very well, I was told, with the ‘money circulating society’ he had started in Madras. He had a car, but he had come to see us on an old bicycle.

“Where’s your car?” I asked him.

“Sh... sh, don’t ever mention it, don’t let anybody know about it, especially our artist friends. They are like leaches – of course there are exceptions like you or Paniker – but most of the others would sponge on me, borrow my car and ruin it. I never take my car when I visit my artist friends.” That was the last time I saw Biswamohan Sen.

Although we were not present during Mukundadeb’s creation of the realistic Kama­sutra masterpieces with the help of Biswamohan and Thelma, we did have the opportunity of seeing the end results which turned out to be pretty good indeed. With the money that he made from the commission, Mukundadeb Ghose went off to Kashmir to paint mountains and populars. What happened to him after that nobody knew.

It was not until two or three months after I had joined Art School that I was invited to Devi Prosad’s house. The occasion was a party given by Mr. and Mrs. Roychoudhury to a select group of senior students. I was invited because Paniker and Paritosh had spoken to Devi Prosad, with friendly exaggeration no doubt, about my musical ability. Devi Prosad was a great lover of Hindustani classical music. He had never learnt music systematically, but a highly sensitive ear and a perceptive musical attitude had enabled him to develop the understanding necessary to enjoy even the most complex subtleties of a raag.

I still remember the excitement I felt as I entered Devi Prosad’s drawing room for the first time. The bedrooms and the drawing room were on the upstairs of the two storey house.

The drawing room was large with a highly polished red floor. There were a few Persian scatter rugs here and there on the floor, as well as a couple of stuffed tiger heads shot by him.

Along the north wall of the room under a big picture window was a low chowki covered with a beautiful red and blue Bokhara. On it rested a harmonium, a tanpura and a pair of tablas.

On the off-white walls at eye level hung some of Roychou­dhury’s well publicised and well known paintings: ‘Harris Bridge at Night’, a pastel blue, green and orange projected his secretive imagination which made one point, went into another and wove a varied thoughtful texture, unfolding an intangible world which stirred the viewer and let him interpret it the way he chose: ‘Sumatra Birds’ and ‘Gold and Green’ in mixed media; ‘After the Storm’ – the wonderful study of a wet crow in black and white; ‘Nirvana’ – a dark, brooding composition of figures in dramatic light and shadow and his large, delicate water colours of mist and mountains. In one corner of the room, on a display block, was one of his finest portrait sculptures – Babuji – a head study of his father.

Seen against the backdrop of his time, Devi Prosad stands forth as somewhat larger than life – as one of those stormy titans who held an era transfixed by the extraordinary power of their imagination and the huge scope of their labours.

A man of unpredictable creative impulse, Devi Prosad’s work alternated between grim, gloomy observation, fanciful mystical flights of imagination and bright, colourful ebulliance. His affinities with literature, his aesthetic emotions at times tinged with sentimentalism, his language of gesture and a penchant for symbolism have become unfashionable now. But during his early days as a creative personality he was the embodiment of both vitality and change in Indian art. So we must not forget that Devi Prosad has a place, both as a classic end and a new beginning.

That evening, for the first time I met Mrs. Charulata Roychowdhury who was a Brahmo Samajist and an ardent admirer of Rabindranath Tagore. She greeted me and said, “Iris tells me that you are a good singer. Will you please sing a few Tagore’s songs for us?”

“Dolly,” Devi Prosad interjected, “I think we should let Sushil sing what he wants to. I would personally love to hear him sing classical music. I respect Rabindranath as a great man and a philosopher – for his poetry, for his profound thoughts on aesthetics but, frankly, I just can’t stand Rabindra sangeet. Why spoil such beautiful poems with hodge podge melodies?”

“Come on, we ladies would like to hear Rabindra Sangeet. You can have your classical music after that.”

Devi Prosad and Charulata were very fond of each other but they were also two, very different kinds of people. In spite of his fame as an artist and success as a man of the world, he always was a bohemian at heart, an artist who was never in tune with the upper crust of the soceity which constantly tried to court him. He often told us, “I can never be all manners and no man even to please my wife.”

His unconventional and at times wild manners (once at the opening of an exhibition he told a Western educated, flirtatious and talkative wife of a highly placed Indian Civil Servant that she knew nothing about art but had a delectable behind) sometimes embarrassed Charulata – a charming, sophisticated and educated woman whose concept of middle class morality and prim and proper behaviour was in sharp contrast to her artist husband’s.

The Indian and World Arts & Crafts is a journal we had never heard of till a well-wisher sent us a fascinating series of articles that appeared in it in 1985. They were by an expatriate artist and art critic SUSHIL MUKHERJEE, who in them looked back at his memorable days at the Madras School of Arts then headed by the renowned artist Devi Prosad Roychowdhury as well as painted a picture of Madras in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The series titled ‘Devi Prosad and His Disciples at the Madras School of Arts’ is ­featured in these pages in a somewhat abbreviated form.

(To be continued...)

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(By Savitha Gautam)

The choices for this column are truly a slice of India... there’s religion running parallel with technology, there’s the north-south issue tacked through an inter-community marriage, and there’s the great Indian Railways, the main artery of this nation. So read on...

Changing religion in India

Nine Lives – In Search of the Sacred in Modern India
William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, Rs. 499).

This is Dalrymple’s first travelogue since The City of Djinns back in 1993. And he returns with a book that explores a subject that connects one and all – religion. Nine Lives takes a deep look at the various forms of religious life practised in South Asia and how these have undergone a transformation in a changing India, where technology thrives alongside rituals and spiritual beliefs.

So, you meet a Buddhist monk who takes up arms to resist the Chinese invasion of Tibet, and then tries to atone for his sin by making prayer flags. You come across a Jain nun whose spiritual journey is put to test when she has to see her best friend starve to death.

From Kerala comes an unusual tale… of a prison warden who is worshipped as a deity for two months in the year! Then, you encounter a goatherd from Rajasthan who keeps alive a 4,000-line sacred epic that he, virtually alone, still knows by heart.

These are a just a few of those Dalrymple met on his travels. Their stories, superbly narrated and told with simplicity, reflect a nation that flourishes even as deep-rooted faith survives.

In Dalrymple’s words, “The book is a look at how religion in India is changing today and how India shining has impacted on these traditions in different ways.” As fellow writer Gurucharan Das succinctly puts it, “By artfully weaving together travel, history, and legend – all without guile – he creates a compelling narrative, reminding us why India is one of the world’s greatest storytelling cultures.”

Like any other Dalrymple book, this one too is a compelling read.

* * *

Inter-community marriage

2 States: The Story of My Marriage
Chetan Bhagat (Rupa, Rs. 95).

Boy meets girl. They fall in love and decide to get married. All’s well till that point. And then begins the trouble. For, this boy and girl live in India. So? Well, he’s a hard-core Punjabi and she hails from an orthodox Tamil Brahmin ­family.

Words are exchanged, and parents oppose the match. For, in India, marriages spell union of two families, their traditions and, not to forget, a truck-load of relatives! Will this couple be able to convince the two sets of parents that rasam and thayir sadam can live in harmony with sarson da saag and makki ki roti? Will they marry and live happily ever after?

Chetan has used his life story as the premise for this funny take on inter-community marriages in modern India. Read it, for I am sure there’s somebody in your family (if it’s not you) who has had a similar experience!

* * *

Beyond the junctions

Chai Chai: Travels In Places Where You Stop But Never Get Off
Bishwanath Ghosh (Tranquebar Press, Rs. 250).

This book is for those who love train journeys and have travelled the length and breadth of India by rail. If you have, you will still be able to smell hot masala vadais and omelettes that are served as breakfast at Guntakal junction; or the hot cups of chai you would sip in eco-friendly earthen pots at other junctions. And I am sure, many of us would have wondered what lay beyond these junctions that we passed through every time we travelled long distances.

Well, Ghosh manages to satisfy that curiosity in this travelogue about Mughalsarai and Itarsi, Arakkonam and Jolar­pettai and other junction towns. And he does so with a keen sense of humour. Everywhere he alighted, he had an interesting encounter or two. That draws the reader into an India where truly there exists unity in diversity.

And, yes, of course, we are all a lot more wiser when it comes to the places which for most of us are just important stopping points on India’s railway map.

A breezy and quick read; just right, especially if you are about to embark on a train journey!

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In this issue

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Tribute to Devadasi...
The Gandhian way...
Historic Residences...
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