The Castaways

Bringing to life unsung heroes: An encounter with a forgotten artist

Bihar’s Rajat Ghosh, whose works are part of NGMA, works on collecting stories on people who mattered to history.

 |  The Castaways  |  9-minute read |   23-05-2018
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Nobody reaches the ceiling here. He is bent with age and maybe despair. That’s why the bulbs have layers of dust on them. That’s why cobwebs have grown and hang from corners with impunity.

The light is unable to penetrate the lingering darkness here.

In this dim light, the woman stood at the door, his wife, an old staircase looming behind her. You couldn’t make out the features very well. She said she would make some tea. Meanwhile, you were ushered into a room with an old large format camera and cardboard boxes piled up and some old framed photos that formed the repertoire of his late father’s works. In the room, a round table with books and dust and an old landline phone was placed near the door. The artist sat in one of the sofas, an inheritance. He said he was trying to work on his retrospective.

yas_052318040047.jpgRajat Ghosh, the artist, had once been famous. Photo: Yasir Iqbal/India Today

Outside the room, in the verandah, terra-cotta sculptures had been covered with some tarpaulin. They are busts of characters from folktales and mythology. In the overgrown garden, the kiln had been destroyed. He must have forgotten to cut the grass. Such lapses are routine in a house like this. He is not himself anymore. 

Some stories are written out of guilt. And maybe out of debt for our own acts of omission and commission. All such houses with dust and peeling paint remind of a house at the end of time that once was a part of your life.

You are indebted to him for leading you into that old house where chairs gathered dust and the phone seldom rang. In the twilight that seemed to be this particular house’s permanent state, there was also a young girl. His daughter. But the bulbs, you noticed earlier, reflected a weak light and so you couldn’t make out her features either. The room she was sitting in had white light. The only room to have that kind of ruthless light that exposes everything to the eye.

It is a cold light. The hazed yellow light is at least more forgiving to the wear and tear.

The walls lined with soot and dust absorbed most of the light. Preservation of walls and roofs are luxuries. Long ago when you read economics in school you knew the relativity with which “necessary” and “luxury” transgressed their definitions depending on the state of being. You knew this was a house of bare necessities.

A modest house, you could say. But from the bannisters and the sprawl of rooms that were now falling apart, you could say it hadn’t always been like this.

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ga_052318035958.jpgAt home, in Patna. Photos: Chinki Sinha

It wasn't a long walk but in the narrow alley with him leading you in the dark, you felt nervous. Strangers like you, a woman who is curious and likes collecting stories, have so much to be scared of.

In the window of the room in front, before he took to the dark alley, you saw an old woman on an old bed sitting quietly. He didn’t say who she was.

And then, his old house loomed in front of us. Dark, crumbling and almost shattered with the weight of dreams, of unrealised potential and frustrations. The front portion of the house belonged to his brother. They had divided the house where they lived once as family.

Long ago, and if memory is not imagination, you had seen his installation in Patna. It was an ode to a Dalit king. Raw and unabashed. It wasn’t polite art. Rajat Ghosh, the artist, had once been famous. His works are at the NGMA and his unapologetic installation of the Dalit king commissioned by the Bihar government as part of its centennial celebrations in 2013 is proof of his mettle as an artist, whose work is about the forgotten heroes of history like the story of Hirni Birni. Raja Shailesh, the king of Dusadh community in ancient Mithila, would greet visitors at Eco Park.

Rajat Kumar Ghosh, a 1978 alumnus of Patna College of Arts and Crafts who won the national award for his sculptures and terracotta work in 1984, is making the statue of the Dalit king. It would be on display during the Bihar Divas celebrations.

The sculpture of Raja Shailesh, who was the king of the Dusadhs and hailed from Mithila, which was installed in 2012 as part of the Bihar Divas celebrations is at display at Eco Park.

He had read about the ancient king in a book by Mani Padma years ago.

Eight tonnes of iron and a tonne of steel had been used to make the 20ft-tall statute. And perhaps in trying to immortalise those who have passed through history without a tribute. Maybe it is all about epitaphs. Sculptures to mark their space. To make the world notice. It perhaps comes from the agony of having been left behind despite the brilliance of his work, despite the promise.

He said he had been collecting stories of heroes of ancient times such as Reshma Chuharmal, Dina Badri, Hirni Birni and Raja Cholan.

“I collect these stories. We have forgotten so many people who fought for us. These were local heroes and there are these folk lores,” he said.

His terra-cotta installation at the regional section of the Bihar Museum is inspired by the folklore of Sama-Chakeba, the daughter and son of Lord Krishna where the daughter was turned into a bird and later brought back to self by her brother, is in contrast with another terra-cotta installation, which is a parallel version of the same mythology, but here Sama and Chakeba are lovers.

Ghosh, a senior of Gupta, who won the national award for his sculptures and terra-cotta work in 1984, is one of the most mysterious artists from Bihar. He has remained in Patna most of his life and is among the lost artists who never found patronage or support for their craft. A 1978 alumni of Patna College of Arts and Crafts, Ghosh said that the museum is a beacon of light for artists in Bihar.

"It is a leap of faith for us," he said.

But you wanted to see more, to know more.

***

A son sometimes inherits the fate of his father. His father had been forgotten too. Manoranjan Ghosh, the man who made the famous lantern projector to be used as an educational tool, used to run a studio called M Ghosh Studio in Bihar’s capital, across Patna College.

He was born in 1909 in Patna and walked with a limp as he had injured his leg when he was a child. Before the tea is served, the artist who you met the day before at the museum where he had made an installation inspired by the story of Sama-Chakeba, said you should climb the stairs to see the rest of the house.

On the landing, I paused to look at the locked doors. He opened one. More of his terra-cotta works were stored here. These were from the series “Evolution of Man” and then he showed you the large steel trunks full of photos and his own notes.

His father was introduced to photography by his brother-in-law in Balurghat, West Bengal. You have gleaned all this information from the internet. But beyond an article as a tribute to his father, there is absolutely nothing. And the son is quoted in newspapers and magazines but that’s about it.

The M Ghosh Studio was famous. Your father remembers it. But he is old and he has been forgetting things lately.

Back in the living room, you notice an old portrait of a man in a black coat and a dhoti. You notice that it is almost like a painting. Ghosh’s father experimented with the application of oil paints on bromides and imbued colours in B&W photos and even dusted photographs with colour powders.

Besides taking photos of political leaders, including Jawaharlal Nehru, his father had documented abandoned and dilapidated houses in Kolkata. The father died in 1981 and that’s when the studio shut down.

On your way to school, you had seen the studio perhaps. There were those old studios with their glass windows displaying old photos of known people and you thought of them as obituaries on display.

This is a story about lonely people. Those who have been left behind. Like the son who is now no more coherent. A young artist told you Ghosh went into depression and it took a lot to get him to work again.

“He is fragile,” he had said.

At an artist’s house, Subodh Gupta, a famous contemporary artist out of Bihar, told you to meet Ghosh. He said his eyes had a wildness about them. When you first bumped into him at the Bihar Museum, you noticed his yellow kurta had not been ironed. He said he would speak to you. You called the young artist the next day to see if you could visit Ghosh at his place.

What can you do about being left behind? He said he never left his city. He stayed back. He said he wanted to do something for his state. Others left and he is happy that they have become rich and famous.

He spoke of a retrospective. He spoke of dreams. His house, inherited, divided and mutilated, was his site for his retrospective.

He insisted you eat the rasgullas and the fish eggs he brought home in the morning in anticipation of your visit. His daughter came and sat with her father. She said she would never become an artist because it isn’t a good life but she would help her father in his archiving efforts. She trusted him. The wife never stepped out of the dark. The daughter was in college and said she was proud of her father.

Over the years, he had slid into that vague kind of darkness where he was forgotten by most.

But you can’t resurrect him. You can only write an incomplete story because you didn’t feel like interrupting him when he spoke about his retrospective. You remembered the younger artist telling you Ghosh was fragile.

You drank the tea and said you’d visit again. He scribbled his number on a scrap of paper. You felt sad. You left Patna, your city.

Ghosh called you several times. Just to ask if you were doing well.

You remembered your promise to yourself to write about people who lived with failed dreams. Because failure, you learned, is beautiful.

And it doesn’t matter if the story is incomplete. Some stories have no peg. They can’t answer the “who, what, when and why” but they are what we remember.

And this is an act of remembrance of that evening last fall in that house where a stranger was welcomed and served tea.

She was asked to visit again. That’s more than enough in this world. You owed him nothing. He owed you nothing. That’s why you smile when you think of the artist. You even pray that he has his retrospective show soon.

And you want to return to his house and maybe help put in 100 watt electric bulbs.

Also read: How Kamasutra inspired my book to be more about love than sex

 

Writer

Chinki Sinha Chinki Sinha @chinkis

Rover in the driftless area of the outcastes. Writing is a way of deleting.

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