Sunday, November 22, 2009

Of Mallus, Bongs, Van Gogh and Don Mcleans

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?


  1. nice one, teacher :) had always loved the song without knowing it was about the artist.... :)

  2. I like Van Gogh and Ravi Varma both.
    Although I don't deserve a connoisseur's sandal strap either :)

  3. The first recognition of beauty is said to be one of the most significant events in the evolution of human consciousness.The feelings of joy and love are intrinsically connected to that recognition.
    Appreciating art is one thing which distinguishes man from animals.You dont need to be an artist to appreciate the beauty in art.
    But I can clearly see the artist in you.It needs very fine emotions,sensitivity and sentiments to write what you have written.If you are moved by events happening to others,you are a very sensitive person.People who can appreciate art,have an understanding of life,that fills them with compassion,gentleness,and a deep loving concern.
    People who cannot appreciate art and beauty really miises out in life. They dont know what life really is and what they have missed.I have seen few such people and really felt sympathy to them. They eat and drink like others,never worries about what is happening to the world around them,and are never moved by anything around them. I wonder if their life is any different from other living beings.
    For Vincent van Gogh,color was the chief symbol of expression. I have not been lucky enough to see his original paintings,but have seen pictures and was fascinated by his life.He was said to be highly emotional and sensitive.Between times of sanity and insanity,romances and their failures,he expressed the spiritual essence of man and nature in color.
    I was impressed by Nicholas Roerich,the same way as Ravi Varma. His paintings are there at the gallery at Trivandrum Museum.Colors that will move your mind,and are easy to appreciate. I could never understand or appreciate Picasso.
    I can also see an artist in you and in what you have written.You havenot waxed eloquently on nothings.You have just let those finer things out of your mind.You cant hide them for ever !

  4. Ilove opaintings that are beautiful and detailed, and for this very reason I love Ravi Varma, Van Gogh and the rest who make me look at awe at their work.

  5. really enjoyed this post that touches everything I love. paintings, books, songs:-) i was thinking of irving stone's 'the agony and the ecstasy' about michaelangelo when i started on your post for some reason and was delighted to come across 'the lust for life'. i have not read it but hope to now. i am listening to the song in u tube as i am writing this. i can only like certain songs and lyrics play a big part in them. this one appears to be a good candidate. thanks! do more posts like this please..

  6. Hi, I am from Australia.

    Please check out this unique essay on the Traditional purpose of Art


  7. Maam, I guess the Admiral Nelson's painting you wrote about was by Richard Westall. However don't remember whether he died or surrendered. I somehow adore Monet probably because of my bias towards landscapes as compared to portraits. It was a pleasure reading this post.

  8. nice read..will check out that song..and also the 2 books mentioned in the blog.

  9. Wow.. this post really made my day. Because I can really relate to it, I was fascinated by Van Gogh for a long time and then hearing this song really got excited. I remember going around and playing the song to people and trying to explain the poets interpretation of the artist. I must have irritated more than one of my friends with my incoherent trivia :)

    That painting with the strange seemingly ethereal swirls of blue, and Mclean's smooth voice going "They would not listen, they're not listening still.
    Perhaps they never will... " Its inspiring stuff.

    This song is played continuosly at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

  10. @egorulz
    wow! hope some day i'll visit the museum! someone send me a clip with Van gogh's paintings in a slide show with Mcleans' Vincent s the background music. it was soo beautiful. but the file got corrupted after that.
    thanks. and thanks for come back :-)
    @ anon
    thanks for the sites. shall check
    @ anon 1
    thanks. am delighted u wanted to listen to Vincent after reading the post
    @ seema
    thanks. yes, painting are exciting but unfortunately, i need commentaries and explanations and history to get into them
    @ sujatha
    i suppose with me ravi verma appeals cos i can relate to what he has drawn. vangogh-he grips!
    @ dr antony
    thank you for all the good things u said.very encouraging.
    @ indianhomemaker
    thanks for visiting. i've always wondered what material connoisseurs are made of!
    @ bombay dosti
    thanks. long time btw :-)

  11. 'Insane jumble of heterogeneous themes' you say.... is also mostly what I think I indulge in. I love Van Gogh for... not exactly sure of the reason. Especially his 'Starry night' and Ravi Varma's realistic style not to miss the Kerala connection.

    McLean's song is brilliant, the composition and the lyrics. It has always managed to tug a string in my heart.... 'how you suffered for your insanity', 'this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you'. Hypnotic! Our radio connections; I owe my survival of my days in the hostel to the 'radio'. And the first time I heard the connections to the artist and the song was on FM Rainbow, Mumbai.... I miss it.


    Isnt it true that the fondest memories are the earliest ones?
    Here is the link to the song with a slideshow as the background...may be the one you thought was lost.

  13. dr Antony
    thanks. yes. it is the same one

  14. Aurobindo was wrong - so what if realism had become "out of fashion" in the West? Every painter has the right to use whatever style he likes best.

    If you ask me, that's what makes Ravi Varma's paintings so uniquely beautiful :)

    On Van Gogh, he may not have actually suffered from insanity.

  15. "unworthy of undoing the sandal strap"
    your own contribution to English metaphors? hmm... I see; this is how a languages evolves! eh? :-)

    a mildly passionate post, I would say.
    coming from a 'silent-as-death' mature/sober mallu, its an achievement in candid expression.
    your sensitivity unveils in here. Good.

  16. @lekhni
    a colonised mind always defines itself in terms of the west

    @ idiot of indian origin
    not comfortable with the salutation i have to use when refering to your comment. dont like calling anyone an idiot:-)
    not my coinage. an adaptation from the bible.
    thanks for visiting.

  17. oh my !
    who will discard a chance to call some1 an idiot?
    especially when that some1 himself willingly prophecies so?
    dear teacher,
    you could adress me "ayyo ayyo" IOIO :-)
    Thats what that little genius Criss does!


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