The sense of belonging
A personal view
In India I have very often been asked: how did you get interested in Tukaram? A question that is asked by common people, journalists, press reporters, critics and enthusiasts who know the background. They were simply puzzled by my passion.
My journey led me from Umbraj to Bombay, and then to The Hague in Holland. I was a 17-year-old teenager from Umbraj, who had spent nine years as a Mumbaikar and twenty-five years as a foreigner. All these years I lived among different peoples, struggling to survive. I led a restless life, but never stopped reading and writing. I traveled along many highways and byways. In the process I kept remembering my village, which seemed so attractive compared to the rat race of city life and the absence of my mother tongue among different peoples in foreign surroundings. And so I became introverted. The distance made me even more aware of my childhood memories of the countryside, my culture and religion—they dominated my thoughts; and naturally found their way into my writing. My first collection of poems, “Dashak” (Decade) was partly influenced by these impressions.
Tukaram’s roots in this soil are deep. When I first encountered his verses, my understanding had just begun, my eyes had begun to wander, my mind was receiving all sorts of impressions and it was all like a breath of fresh air. It was because of the discussions between my parents and relatives that I saw Tukaram and Jnandev depicted in the theatre, in keertan performances and in the pilgrimage to Pandharpur. I saw a small statue of Vitthal and Rukmini standing next to the God Khandoba, paintings and statues of varkaris and saints inside and outside the temples. These impressions were engraved on my mind from childhood.
When I first read Tukaram, his work was very hard to understand—I kept making the effort. At the time I was just beginning to understand the power of writing. For my secondary school examinations I chose art history instead of mathematics. I wasn’t sure of further schooling, so to make a living I joined a firm that made film posters in Bombay. In 1979 I was taking lessons at the Art Academy in Mumbai. Visuals accompanied the words, and vice versa. I find it difficult now to recall which came first, the visuals or the words. I was interested in the arts, but didn’t put much effort into it. I was doing mostly stage performances.
With my natural talent for the fine arts, I began to draw larger-than-life faces of movie stars, and colored them with oil paint. I realized the need for proper art education. I got admission to the Art Academy. I was supposed to attend evening courses in literature but it was simply not possible. I avidly read all kinds of new writing. In applied art, literature and the visual arts became more elaborate, supporting each other. I got more interested in my studies, won State Awards and people took an interest in my work. Drama, cinema, world trade fairs, literary publications and a new circle of friends occupied me day and night. After five years in an advertising course I obtained my Diploma of Applied Arts. And then started my mission to explore Tukaram’s Gatha in depth.
I went through an unstable period of my life in terms of hope and confidence. I had come to know another world. Advertising was a glamorous field, but I wanted to gain a full awareness of my capacities and intellectual ability. I started gathering information on advanced study in the arts in foreign countries and cultures—I made my move accordingly. That’s how I arrived in Holland. From 1983 to 1987 I lived in a completely different culture, with a different language and atmosphere. There were jarring contrasts: in the village I was a farm boy, in the city I was a country bum and in that foreign country I was an Indian. So I became conscious that I was nowhere—certainly not among my own people—and I felt like an alien.
Whenever I got a chance I visited the farm and enjoyed my stay there. Why this longing? I kept thinking about this. Where on this earth would I not have the feeling of being a stranger? I tried to find an answer to this question. Gradually, I began to understand the spiritual harmony between Tukaram and Vithoba. I began to see the meaning of not belonging to a people or a place. This is not a happy state to be in: neither a believer or devotee, nor an atheist. Then I started to believe in my own being. During the past twenty-five years I’ve been travelling between Europe and India. I’ve seen many aspects of life, come across many incidents, but I still cannot answer this question: why do I live in Europe and not in India, or why in India and not in Europe. One might say this is paradoxical, but I don’t see it that way. I search for meaning in the paradoxes or contradictions that these different traditions present. Together they become a mixture of philosophies, cultures and traditions, out of which my life has acquired a new meaning. The devotee and the deity stand face to face, like Tukaram and Vithoba.
The idea of combining visuals and poetry was fleshed out when I presented Dashak (Decade) in an exhibition. I selected ten poems and made paintings out of them. In one of the poems I realized the form of Vitthal. In the process of reading the abhangas in Tukaram’s Gatha the form became vivid. Images, forms, symbols and metaphors surface again and again in Tukaram’s verses. They inspired me. I produced drawings, paintings, sculptures, and graphics such as litho silk-screens. I have worked constantly in the spirit of meditation.
During my travels to and from my native place I read many books to satisfy my hunger for knowledge. Among them were Dilip Chitre’s books, ”Punha Tukaram”, and”Says Tuka” (selected verses by Tukaram in English translation). They quickened my desire to critically examine Tukaram and his poetry.
I’ve lived in Europe for the past twenty-five years. Visual art has been developing in Europe since the fifteenth century. Holland is the land of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Piet Mondrian and many other masters. That golden age is known to Europe and the whole world as the art of and for the common man, but this happened only in Holland. I work here and simultaneously exhibit my works. The cultural face of Europe is changing. The art world has come to the end of the road, and all isms are feeding on themselves. Flashes of genius are now emerging the world over, not just in certain regions. Malevich, Paul Klee, Picasso, Miro, Dali, Henry Moore—all have passed into history. They have brought people to the museums so they can be spiritually enriched. Now the art scene is desperately seeking new horizons.
I saw many images and forms in the dialogue between Tukoba and Vithoba. Those images and forms I put together, with colour, in the project “Your form is my creation”. It does not belong to any particular ism or style; it stands on its own. It is like a meditation on the visual world.
Visual art has been well-developed in Europe over five centuries, and it has had its ups and downs according to the growth and development of Europe. Somewhere or other change takes place but we’re hardly aware of it in our lifetime, though we may be nearby.
In April 2008 I came back to India by land from Holland with an art caravan. Along the roads of the Indian subcontinent I exhibited the work of artists from 80 nations in ten Indian cities, from Amritsar to Bangalore, under the title, SHOW YOUR HOPE—80 Questions Around the World. I decided to travel with the Pandharpur Vari (pilgrimage) to experience a centuries-old tradition, sketch book and camera in hand to celebrate Tukaram’s 400th birth anniversary with his Palkhi. I walked with the common folk and witnessed the glorious celebration of the life of a great poet. This celebration by hundreds of thousands, full of life, speaks more persuasively than all the words of Tukaram and the other saint poets.