Am no connoisseur of art. To tell you the truth, I'm unworthy even to undo a connoisseur’s sandal strap. Have a mere smattering of the history of art. The paintings that appeal to me are usually the ones that anyone who knows anything about art would jeer at.
As a kid, I used to pour over a gigantic book of paintings which had more than 300 famous paintings. I enjoyed them ‘cos there was a footnote at the bottom of each full page painting, which gave interesting information about that particular work. There was this painting by I don’t remember who, which shows a huge potbellied Cardinal Woolsey walking with his head down. The annotation given below the picture was Cardinal Woolsey’s words in prison to the effect ”If I had served my God as I served the king, he would not have left me to the wolves”.
And then there was this painting by I don’t again remember who(Some West?) which shows Admiral Nelson dying in the battlefield. His last words formed the caption: “My God and My Country”.
Some of Rembrandt’s bathing themed pictures shocked me. I thought he was a vulgar person! So much for my knowledge of art :-).
As I grew older, whatever I knew about art was what I had picked up from my scanty reading on the subject. I remember being very angry with Sri Aurobondo for ridiculing Raja Ravi Varma who was my hero because he, Ravi Varma, was a mallu. Mr. Aurobindo thought Ravi Varma’s use of realistic style was like using the cast off clothes of the west! The western artists had already graduated from the realistic to impressionistic. I found umpteen numbers of explanations which smacked of ignorance and parochialism and the fire of youth to explain away Mr. Aurobindo’s take. He was a bong, I once argued heatedly with my friend during a seminar, when Mr. Aurobindo’s article came up for discussion. Bongs think that only what they have adopted from the west are worth it, I snapped. They behave as tho the rest of India has no right to appropriate anything of the west, I snarled. And they claim to be the seat of the renaissance in India during India’s miserable colonial days - the ones who lit the lamp of creativity in the Indian soul darkened and skewed by centuries of colonial subjugation. I’d have none of it, no matter what Mr. Aurobindo said. I argued that Bengal’s creativity smacked of slavishness and slavery, for Calcutta was the seat of the Company and the Empire for long years. I remember the lecturer intervening at that point and asking both of us (my rival, by the way, was not a bong but a tambram who was just trying to needle the usually silent-as-death mallu that was me) to shut up as neither of us knew anything of what we were talking - one more uninformed than the other, she fumed !
Needless to say, I later felt ashamed of my unusually vocal performance, but I justified myself to myself on the grounds that this mallu needling had gone too far this time!
To come back to the subject of my post, despite being such a huge dimwit about art, I developed a huge fascination for Vincent van Gogh during my graduation days. In a very strange manner, this fascination grew into an obsession through a strange coincidence.
It all began with the book LUST FOR LIFE by Irving Stone. I had just finished reading THE MOON & SIXPENCE which was Maugham’s book about Gauguin, and was persuading a friend to read it when she gave me THE LUST FOR LIFE. I loved the book ‘cos we had been introduced to impressionism and its impact on literature in the lecture classes. But it was the character of Van Gogh which scared and fascinated me. I still remember reading with utter horror the way he shaved off his ear because he kept hearing strange whispering (he had these bouts of insanity), packed the dismembered ear, walked into a pub holding the packet and bleeding profusely, and left it to be delivered to one of his prostitute friends there. Her scream when she opened it rang in my ears for many days. The despair which might have made that great painter who found his calling in life a little late in life, haunted me. After completing the book, I went picture hunting – for Van Gogh’s paintings. The book I mentioned earlier had only a sample of Van Gogh’s work. I hunted in the libraries and found some paintings in encyclopedias and other reference books. I began to get a little familiar with his works.
Now comes the coincidence.
It happened on one of those early days of my Vincent Van Gogh euphoria. It was just past seven in the morning on a Saturday, and I was listening to the Voice Of America Morning Show which was a favourite programme with a lot of people in those days. Suddenly the host announced a new composition by Don McLean’s titled VINCENT. It was, he said, about the Impressionist artist Vincent van Gogh whom he briefly introduced with facts I was more than familiar with.
I couldn’t believe my ears. I had by then developed a sense of proprietorship over the artist. And my excitement knew no bounds at a song having been written and sung about him, just after I had discovered him.
Then the song began.
To date, I can’t forget the moment the first lines of the song -STARRY STARRY NIGHTS- wafted in to the room from the telefunken radiogram which had the radio at the bottom and the gramophone on top. I sat doubled over on the moda, my ear close to the speaker of the radio, listening to the incredibly beautiful song. The melody was the strangest I had heard. And listening to the tragic story of the artist ( ‘how you suffered for your sanity’ ), the details of his paintings, the insanity that he grappled with till he died and the brilliant colours that literally ‘blared’ out of his works (all of which formed part of the lyrics) gave me goose bumps. And the words “This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you” sung so soulfully, melancholically had a sort of hypnotic effect on me.
Wondering why I’m waxing so eloquently on what must appear to be trivial nonissue? You see, for a young woman trapped in the little town of Kochin, in the most conservative of Syrian catholic families, books and the radio were the only window to the big world out there. For her such experiences are not mere trifling matters.
I still haven’t got fully away from the shadow of Van Gogh. Every time I hear Don McLean’s number, some of those old sentiments are revived, leaving behind a hangover of the encounter with an artist whose work I understood less than superficially, but whose insanity changed my perceptions of the very concept of sanity.
That I guess should explain the mildly(?) insane jumble of heterogeneous themes in this post?