Thursday, July 9, 2009

Who Art Thou?

(Published : The Sunday Midday - 21 Dec 2008)

Artists often develop a defence mechanism. It seems to help them counter the raised eyebrow, the rolling eyes or the sceptical curl of the lip that they find themselves at the receiving end of, every now and then. They become solitary animals who defend their territory from philistines. They frown upon the ‘general public’. Maybe it is to establish or remind people of their artistic status. Or maybe it is to convince themselves of their artistic capabilities. Whatever the case, the lines get drawn straight away.

Recently, a friend told me that on the Bali islands, the native language has no word for ‘art’ or ‘artist’. Art being such an intrinsic part of their lives, the natives have no need of a different word to confer artistic status to a person. Art is as basic a part of each of their lives as any other occupation. Or maybe every occupation is an art for them. Meaning every human being is an artist and every artist a human being. Quite right too, come to think of it…for art is expression. And expression cannot be limited only to painting. On a trip down South recently, I came across a man at a coffee joint who’d made an art out of perfectly flicking spoonfuls of sugar into the coffee cups from quite a distance. It was an art that gave him tremendous pleasure for no apparent reason. But he doesn’t get to be called eccentric. That’s the prerogative of the brush-wielder.

Sometime back I met an old friend after a span of 10 odd years. We recalled entire vacations we’d spent playing cricket or playing with GI-Joes on the terrace. Presently, the conversation came to what each of us was doing then. As it turned out, he was an engineering student and I had just finished doing my Applied Art. When I told him that, he blinked a couple of times and suddenly wanted to know what I had scored in my SSC and HSC. When I told him, he looked at me a little funny and said “Why the hell did you get into art then? People must have expected a lot more from you.” The conversation more or less dwindled after that and five minutes later I was out of the place, muttering under my breath.
Ever since, every time I felt the conversation swerving towards my profession I became defensive. Now I had a further felony to my discredit. I was working on a graphic novel. “He’s also taken to writing now…sigh…” I could almost hear them say. So I stridently caught the subject by the scruff of its neck. I answered before being questioned. I testified before being pulled to court. I went on the front foot even before the bowler was into his run-up. I championed my cause flagrantly. I ruthlessly stared down the ‘general public’. “I write and draw. It’s fun.” I started saying smugly in answer to questions about the weather. Art became the greatest and worthiest of pursuits and to me what I did became sacrosanct.

One day I sat in front of the mirror and the barber whipped out the white sheet. The snippety-snip of his scissors and the yakkety-yak of his tongue competed fiercely with each other. He spoke about a lot of things and I pitched in now and then, to be polite. India was playing someone in a one-day series and Mr. Barber had his favourite topic to speak about. He emphatically ranted about the team-selection and flailed his arms around over the poor batting, while I prayed for the preservation of my side locks. Then it happened. Sehwag was out cheaply in the previous game and Mr. Barber said something that has always stayed with me and tickled me and made me think. “Sehwag bhi na…hajaam hain saala!” he boomed. Hajaam he said. A word for barber, often used derogatorily. He said it in the most nonchalant way too while he went about cutting my hair.
It was a sentence he didn’t think twice about. But one hat I kept with me ever since. It dripped with honest expression. With the quality of not taking yourself too seriously for what you are and still having your self respect intact. A simple acceptance of what you do with no attempt or need for concealment or glorification. Both of us were sitting in the same lazy saloon in Pune but at that instant he was a lot closer to Bali than I was.

A fuller and more contended existence comes from doing what you like doing best without contempt for anyone who may not see things your way. From knowing it doesn’t matter. It comes from not taking yourself too seriously. From calling a spade a spade. An artist a human being. And a cricketer a hajaam.


  1. very well written! "doing what you like doing best without contempt for anyone who may not see things your way".. i'll always remember that..

  2. snm said.....
    do let me know? who art thou ? ? ?