Until I went to college, art played no role in my life. Art classes in school failed to unearth any talent, although I personally thought my bottle designs for Morarji Cola showed promise. My teachers disagreed. One of our art teachers was the famous Bengali author Kamal Kumar Majumdar. He used to read out his short stories to us in class. We were too young to appreciate his genius. His disposition, never too bright, was darkened by this. He once caught me mimicking him, and socked me in the jaw. This was a time when life was simpler and rods were not spared. Although he bought me ice cream afterwards, this left me with an aversion to both art and literature. I did my level best to avoid both for as long as I could.
I tried not to look at paintings, and restricted my reading to Jules Verne, Sukumar Roy and Spider-Man. Circumstances dragged me back, kicking and screaming. In college, I was part of a quiz team. One of the highlights of every year was the North Star quiz, conducted by the redoubtable Sadhan Banerjee. During visual rounds, he would show paintings, and ask questions such as ‘We all know this was painted by Velazquez (we didn’t), but who is the man on the left?’ After some amount of discussion, I was chosen to mug up on art. So I started buying books on Western art. ‘Why not Indian art,’ you may ask, ‘you anti-national Porkistani?’
It’s a valid question. I’m very sensitive to this kind of thing, because I used to write for Swarajya, where such compliments were often heaped on me. Some of them expressed their disapproval in simple and basic ways, involving anatomy and relatives, but there were others who were extremely erudite. One of them once called me a deracinated sepoy. This has left me slightly sensitive to Macaulay-esque behaviour, but I should point out in my defence that this was all Sadhan-da’s fault. He was the Macaulay putra, not me, most probably brainwashed at one of those convents. Left to myself, I would have happily studied Jamini Roy and Bikash Bhattacharya.
I started my journey with a second-hand copy of Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation, which helped me to cover the basics. I discovered that European women are much thinner now. In the era of Rubens and Titian, they were ample and chunky. This was before aerobics. I was puzzled by Picasso, and left in two minds by self-portraits of Rembrandt. I was confused when I looked in his eyes. Sometimes I felt it would be great to be him, and sometimes I thought, maybe not. The effects of all this art were mostly mental. There were times when I felt like the man in The Scream. He appeared now and then in the mirror. The dancers of Degas reassured me that however dreary my own life might be, someone somewhere was having a party. Van Gogh taught me how pain can transmute into beauty. As I get older, I can see myself fading into the sunset, like The Fighting Temeraire. But what I remember most of all is that the best of it made me both happy and sad. I did not know that I could feel that way. It helped make me what I am.