“Oscillations: A Brush Without Words and Words Without Images”, by Dilip Chitre
Dilip Chitre is and Indian poet, artist and filmaker. He has published thirty books, five of which have been translated into German. He has won several prizes and awards.
I have been drawing, sketching, and painting since my early childhood when I also started playing with words. My father collected books of all sorts and he being a printer and publisher by profession, some of the books he collected were examples of excellence in book production— illustrated books, art books, atlases, almanacs, catalogues, photographic books—and so on. They fascinated and intrigued me. I spent hours browsing through them. They were the beginning of my visual education as well as my verbal education.
I used to spend a lot of time in my father’s printing press and his master printer, Baldev Bhoi would give me tins of printer’s ink with their little left-over contents. I would also get left over cut pieces of various sizes and kinds of paper. These were the first art material I used. From Baldev I learnt how to mix inks to produce secondary colours and shades from red, blue, yellow, white, and black. Making different kind of greens by blending blue, yellow, red, and black was my favourite learning exercise. We had lots of trees and plants in our surroundings and the varieties of green I saw there made me want to reproduce many of them.
My father purchased an 8 mm movie camera and a projector, as well as a box camera, and being the eldest of siblings I got a chance to make five-minute silent movies and to make black and white portraits and landscapes, action snapshots and images of monuments. I used a baby pram to take tracking shots and pans and zooms that were not possible to shoot with the fixed focus lens of the camera. I was already innovating techniques to overcome the limitations of the basic equipment in my hands.
In the 1950s, after my family moved from the idyllic princely state capital Baroda to the congested big city then called Bombay, our financial circumstances changed for the worse. I could no longer afford to use water colours or fine quality pastels or crayons or pencils. I started writing poetry which costs much less to practise than the visual arts. However, I continued to work out charcoal drawings, pencil sketches, and pastel compositions often scouring the city at night in search of subjects: Irani restaurants, suburban railway platforms, beaches, and even cemeteries and crematoria.
During my late teens, I made friends with like-minded poets who were also visual artists. All of them were much older than me—-in their twenties or early thirties. Arun Kolatkar was one of them. Through Arun I met Bandu Waze, Ambadas, Ramesh Samartha, and Baburao Sadwelkar. I started visiting the Artists’ Aid Centre at Rampart Row, the Jehangir Art Gallery, and the campus of the Sir J.J. School of Arts. I met very senior academic artists such as Shankar Palsikar who liked my work despite my not being a trained artist, as well as the then upcoming professional artists such as Mohan Samant and Vasudev Gaitonde.
A little later, I met Bal Chabda and started observing artists at work in his Gallery ‘49 on Bhulabhai Desai Road. My friend Dnyaneshwar Nadkarni, now a senior art critic, introduced me to Ebrahim Alkazi and his theatre group. I made friends with Nooruddin or ‘Nicky’ Padamsee and his younger brother Akbar Padamsee, the painter.
Bombay of the 1950s whetted my appetite not only to see art but also to practice it myself. I worked on paltry salaries as a tutor in two colleges and as a sub-editor in a daily newspaper. Acceptable quality art material still remained beyond my means. It was only when I went to Ethiopia in 1960 as a high school teacher of English in secondary schools that I got a chance to handle oil colours. In one of my homes there, I painted a mural on the wall of the living room, much in the spirit of prehistoric cave artists.
Back in Bombay in 1963, I returned to the cramped space of the big city once again. Wanting to live independently of my joint family, I lived with my wife and my small son in leased rooms in different parts of the city, eleven months being the standard period of lease. Living space competed and collided with working space, but now I had corporate jobs that I was forced to take up to pay exorbitant rents and support my small family with a growing son.
Undaunted, in 1969 I purchased twelve large canvases—-the largest was 180cmx180cm—-oil colours, linseed oil, turpentine, and a set of brushes to start painting the way I had always wanted to. My first one-man show was held in the now defunct Gallery Rampart on Rampart Row. I shared the gallery space with Bhai Patki, who was my colleague in an advertising agency where he was Art Director and I was Chief Copywriter. This show opened on September 17, 1969—-my thirty-first birthday.
Two of my twelve canvases were purchased by Air India International on the first day of the show: Green Divided by Itself and Erotic Textures. Some of my titles irritated The Times of India art critic, Dnyaneshwar Nadkarni enough for him to comment on the title A Painting for God’s Bedroom as frivolous, though The Sapphire Symphony the diagonally placed 180cmx180cm work dominated by subtle cubes of cobalt, ultramarine, and cerulean blue with a large, off-centre, vermilion dot was generously called by him a masterpiece. I still recall Akbar Padamsee telling me that the dot, instead of being vermilion, should have been cadmium orange to make the painting perfect. The greatest compliment I got, however, was from Professor Shankar Palsikar—-revered as a Guru by his art students. He came with his students, saw the entire exhibition, and said to me half-addressing everybody within earshot, “ I wanted my students to see how a genuine artist dares!”
I was vastly encouraged by the overwhelming response to my first public show, but I did not dare to take the plunge into the uncertain life of a full-time painter yet. My job in advertising gave me a chance to script, edit, and direct ad films just then; and I needed practice in that medium before I could realize my dream of making independent documentary and feature films on themes of my choice.
Later, I switched from advertising to the position of Creative Executive in the Art Department of the Indian Express Group of Newspapers. I contributed articles and edits to the paper, too (e.g. Editor S. Mulgaonkar asked me to write an obituary tribute to Pablo Picasso that appeared as the second edit on the editorial page on the day following the news of Picasso’s demise).
In September 1975, I joined the International Writing Program of the University of Iowa along with about twenty writers from as many countries. When I went into the artist’s materials shop in downtown Iowa City, I was surprised to find two of my poet colleagues—-Peter Clarke from Cape Town, South Africa and Ahmed Muhammad Imamovic from Bosnia-Herzegovina buying paints and canvases. It struck me that the three of us could hold a show of our paintings in Iowa City and in a flash I thought we should create a new interactive art form in the spirit of jazz-—the quintessential American genre of music. Peter and Ahmed agreed enthusiastically.
I coined the term Triple Triptych for the new form of painting. Each one of us was to do one initial painting and the other two were to improvise on the same theme in their own style. The size of the three paintings was to be uniform. As the space allotted to us by the University of Iowa’s museum of modern art was limited, we could only exhibit three triple triptychs ( nine paintings in all) plus some of our individual works.
The show was successful beyond our expectations. The President of John Deere Incorporation, a giant multinational company that manufactures tractors and other farming equipment, purchased a triptych entitled Non-migratory Birds for the company’s headquarters at Moline, Illinois that has a formidable collection of paintings and sculptures. Each of us sold some works. The Des Moines Register Weekly carried a cover story on the new art form—Triple Triptych that was credited to us.
I returned to India at the beginning of 1978 but resigned from The Indian Express, where I had a lien on my job during the Emergency, to work independently as a writer, artist, and filmmaker. I was consultant to a small advertising agency owned by a friend and wrote scripts for short films for another.
In 1980, I travelled with two other writers—-the late Nirmal Verma and U.R.Ananthamurthy—-to the then Soviet Union, Hungary, West Germany, and France to explore possibilities of reciprocal literary exchange through translation. The visit gave me a chance to visit legendary art museums such as the Hermitage, the Louvre, the Berlin museum, the Alte and the Neue Pinakothek as well as the Lembachhaus in Munich, the Impressionist museum in Paris— and so on.
Seeing art on such a scale actually disoriented me in the end. When I tried to fall asleep, I saw such an involuntary cascading slide show of random images of paintings that I was unable to stop. My brain was fatigued by the art I saw. I was like a starving man from a famine-stricken land invited to a gourmet feast that turned him into a glutton who ended up with indigestion. From then on, I learnt to savour art by avoiding to see too much of it in a short time, something that I had already been doing with literature and cinema.
In the 1980s I decided to focus my energies on making a full length feature film to realize a crying creative need. I knew by then that cinema was the most expensive medium of self-expression and that even to make a small budget feature film, I would need to raise a few lakh of rupees. I decided to take my chance by entering a screenplay in the annual scriptwriting competition of the National Film Development Corporation. I paid five thousand rupees to my friend, Bhau Padhye and purchased the first option on adapting his short story Godam before I set out to work on the screenplay.
I spent a whole year working on my script and in the process spent all my meagre savings. In 1982, my script won the NFDC’s national scriptwriting award which carried a cash prize of Rs 10,000 and, more importantly, a guarantee of 100% finance if I wanted to make the film myself.
Friends such as Satyadev Dubey and Govind Nihalani agreed to work without fees and I found an exceptional Art Director in Uday Joshi, a practising architect. My son Ashay was an apprentice cinematographer learning under Nihalani and my wife Viju looked after costumes and properties. My daughter-in-law Rohini worked as my script and continuity assistant. Several young and eager people wanted to assist me as apprentices and, always a teacher, I took as many of them on board as I could.
NFDC bureaucrats were reluctant to let me make the film and created a lot of hurdles. I had planned to shoot the film in early 1983 before the summer began because the location I had chosen was intolerably hot and dry from mid-April to June. I borrowed Rs 100,000 at an exorbitant rate of interest from the market and started the film. I presented a fait accompli to NFDC and eventually they released part of the budget and continued to release funds till the film was completed.
I finished shooting Godam in two schedules amounting to a total of thirty-four days and finished dubbing and post-production in ten days. It took us a month to edit the film. Alain Jalladeux of Les Festival des Trois Continents chose Godam as the official Indian entry in the Nantes Festival—as it is known. However, the NFDC bungled again by not sending the film to France in time for the festival and it was shown the next year, 1984, when it won the Prix Special du Jury for Direction. I was 46 when this happened.
My award for Godam was announced by the festival jury on December 4, 1984 and on that very day the media started bringing in initial reports of the horrible industrial disaster in Bhopal, where I lived with my family then. My son Ashay lived with us in my bungalow opposite Bharat Bhavan and his wife Rohini was six months pregnant. The two—or rather three—of them were in the city where thousands were believed to be dead, or maimed and crippled for life. Bhopal was cut off from the world. There was no way I could communicate with Ashay who was not only my only son but also my Chief Assistant on the Godam project. Viju, my wife, was as helpless as me. She was waiting in Mumbai for me to return from France.
Our small family world was shattered. Eventually, Ashay and Rohini flew to Mumbai and were immediately examined by several medical experts. As for treatment, none of them had a clue. A homeopath who had clinics in both Mumbai and Pune and had long queues of patients at either place, gave Ashay an out of turn priority in his Pune clinic. That is how we moved to Pune.
My tenure at Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal as Director of its poetry centre was brief but extremely stimulating. In that multi-arts complex—the brain child of Ashok Vajpeyi, the Secretary of the Bharat Bhavan trust—-I had for colleagues the painter and thinker J. Swaminathan and the theatre director and producer B. V. Karanth. Bharat Bhavan became the hub of creative activity in the fine arts. The cream of Indian musicians, dancers, singers, actors, painters, potters, sculptors, ceramicists, and poets visited and presented their work at Bharat Bhavan. If the terrible Bhopal disaster had not affected, uprooted, and traumatized my own family, I would have continued longer there.
However, my son’s lung capacity was reduced overnight to a mere 40% due to exposure to the lethal gas— methyl isocyanate. No physicians knew how to handle the effects of MIC or reverse them. We moved to Pune where a homeopathic physician offered us the only hope of treatment for Ashay, Rohini, and their unborn child. In 1985, I resigned from Bharat Bhavan and decided to settle in Pune. Already suffering from chronic hypertension and unstable angina, I had to undergo an emergency angioplasty in 1989. That was the next turning point in my creative career.
The only way I bounce back in adverse times and difficult circumstances is by painting or writing in reaffirmation of my faith in life and its indomitable creativity. Crises spur me on, sooner or later. I write poetry and create art mostly in self-defence or in search of self-realization. The whole outside world impinges on my creative conscience with its political conflicts and cultural stagnation. I seek my way out by going into myself and re-emerging with what seems to me a way of saying I am.
From 1985 till this day, I found in Pune a whole range of visual images that came out on paper, wood, and canvas. I am a senior member of Friends of Visual Arts in Pune, an informal group of artists working in different media, in different styles, and using different techniques. We hold group shows in Pune and over the years we have established our presence. On my sixtieth birthday in 1998, Friends of Visual Arts held a special exhibition in my honour. Two years later, Bhaskar Hande curated my one-man show at the Solo Art Gallery at Churchgate in Mumbai. It was called Paintings of Bhakti.
My present show is the first presentation of my work by a reputed professional gallery. On view here are my works of the last twenty-three years. Friends who wish to remain backstage are behind this exhibition of works selected out of over a thousand drawings, sketches, and paintings that use a variety of media and surfaces: oil and/acrylic on canvas, canvas board, and paper; watercolour on paper; crayons and pastels on paper; marble dust, crushed stone, and epoxy resin on canvas; oil on wood; mixed media on canvas and paper; charcoal, pen, and pencil on paper—-and so on.
I am self-taught, self-driven, and seek self-realization through art.
However, I am not a self-proclaimed artist.