Living Art: Vasudevan Akkitham in Conversation with Gulammohammed Sheikh

Living Art: Vasudevan Akkitham in Conversation with Gulammohammed Sheikh

in Interview
Published on: 18 March 2020

Vasudevan Akkitham

Former head of the department of Fine Arts at MS, University, Baroda, Vasudevan Akkitham is a prominent Indian artist whose works are part of several reputed collections such as Kerala Lalit Kala Akademy, Madhavan Nair Museum, Cochin, Chester Herwitz Family Trust Collection, USA etc.

Gulammohammed Sheikh in conversation with Vasudevan Akkitham

Artist Gulammohammed Sheikh dons many roles in life—painter, poet, educator, writer, art historian−all of which emerge from and coalesce into his engagement with contemporary socio-political concerns. Born in Surendranagar, Gujarat, Sheikh discovered his passion for poetry and painting while in school itself. The city of Baroda where he moved to after finishing school,  played a crucial role in his works and life. He did his Master’s in Painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts, M.S. university, Baroda. His three years’ training at Royal College of Art, London, widened his horizons and introduced him to art and artists from all over the world. When he returned to India he accepted a teaching position at M.S. University where he continued to teach art history and painting for nearly three decades.

Gulammohammed Sheikh has exhibited widely in India as well as internationally. His solo and group exhibitions include The Vii Tokyo Biennale, Tokyo, 1963, Contemporary painting of India, Belgrade, 1974, Mappings, The Guild, Mumbai (2004), Kahat Kabir, Vadehra Gallery, New Delhi (1998), Returning Home (a retrospective of work from 1968-1985) at Centre Georges Pompidou, Musee National d’Art Moderne, Paris (1985), Two-person show (with Bhupen Khakhar), Walsh Gallery, Chicago, 2002 etc. As a painter, Sheikh sought to present life as he knew and experienced through his paintings which presented a spectacle of fantastical images and colours, drawing the viewer into a dynamic maze of memories, histories, dichotomies and narratives.

Sheikh believes that writing and painting share a meaningful relationship, and in him, both facets have always supplemented and complimented each other. His collection of poetry with own illustrations Athawa was published in 1974. An appended edition of Athawa appeared in 2013. His poems have been published in various literary journals in Gujarati like Vishwasmanav, Kshitij, Kumar, Sanskriti, Milap etc. He published a series of free form verse Ghar Jatan in 1968 and has edited and designed journals and books and also done lino cuts for special editions of the journal Vrishchik. Sheikh edited Contemporary Art in Baroda that traces the history of contemporary art and art education in Baroda from the nineteenth century till the end of twentieth century. 

Paintings of Gulammohammed Sheikh are exhibited in public and private collections across the world like the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, National Gallery of Modern art in New Delhi, Peabody Essex Museum in USA etc. The Government of India honoured him with Padma Shri in 1983 and Padma Bhushan in 2014. He was also conferred with Kalidas Samman in 2002, Ravi Varma Puraskar in 2009 and National Award by Lalit Kala Akademi in 1962. He was conferred D.Litt by Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata.  

Following is the edited transcript of the video interview with Gulammohammed Sheikh conducted by Vasudevan Akkitham on August 29, 2019, Baroda.

Vasudevan Akkitham (VA): Thank you, Padma Shri and Padmabhushan Gulammohammed Sheikh for giving us time for this interview. I thank you on behalf of Sahapedia for giving us your time. I thought that as a kind of beginning, we could perhaps go to Surendranagar and it will be nice if you could remember those days and bring them back to life.

Gulammohammed Sheikh (GMS): It is a long story, if I may say so. It is over sixty years since I left Surendranagar. But I keep going there, both physically as well as in my mind. The childhood never leaves you. It remains a kind of a constant. And in some cases childhood also figures as some kind of a point of take-off. In Gujarati we have the story of nolvel —a story of snake and a mongoose. Nolvel means mongoose-creeper (nolio=mongoose, vel=creeper). When it fights with the snake, in between the fight, the mongoose sort of goes to a particular creeper, sniffs the creeper and comes back to strike. Childhood is something like that. It always recharges you in some ways. Not that all memories are perfect. Not all memories are the happiest of your life. But memories nevertheless keep you going back and forth and in the process, if I may say so, create new memories. There is the past, and in thinking about the past, you are also creating a past. In many ways, I look at my childhood… well, now since I am away from it for a long time, not nostalgically but I look at it as though it belongs to somebody else. Well, I have to tell you the story in first person.  

I was born in a small town, in a sort of middle-class family. Muslim family. We lived in a kind of a lane, bit of a ghetto [with] Muslims of various kinds—I  must dispel the impression that Muslims are a homogenous community. There were types and types of Muslims. There were sipahis, sayyids, miyanas, and we were ghanchis which means oil-seed sellers or oil-seed crushers, you know, who run the oil-seed mill. Not that my family was involved in running the mill but we came from that. Then the names of our. . . like my mother’s name was Ladu which was a common name between Hindus and Muslims. My grandfather’s name was Nathu-bhai which is again a common name between Hindus and Muslims. I studied in a local madrasa because all Muslim children are sent to madrasa to learn the Quran. I learnt to read the Quran in Arabic but I did not know the meaning. Because no one explained it to us that, because we were not taught it. We were taught only to recite it. I can still recite it but without knowing its meaning. Similarly, when I went to school—earlier in the same school where my elder brothers studied, prior to Independence—Farsi or Persian was given as an option for a second language, but during my student days, Farsi was out of the syllabus; so, I opted for Sanskrit. I learnt a great deal about the cultures which did not belong to Islam. Instead of learning about Islam, I learnt a lot about the rest. Learnt about Hinduism, learnt about Jainism, learnt about Buddhism as well. Books which came after Independence were very liberal. And the books were in Gujarati. So, I was able to read them without any difficulty. In a way it was interesting because in the morning I went to the madrasa, but in the afternoon I went to the school. So, in the morning I recited Arabic and in the afternoon I was studying Sanskrit; sometimes, the poetry of Kalidasa or something from the Upanishads, and all these came to me handy when I wrote in Gujarati, particularly, poetry. So all the vrittas, the Sanskrit metres… I knew,  like shikharini, shardulavikridit, vasantatilka, etc. I even tried them in Gujarati poems when I was at school. But at the same time, I don’t know where my painting came from, but I used to sit with my paint box or whatever I had bought from the market.    

AV: But can you say what came first—was it the writing or was it the painting?

GMS: To be very frank, I don’t remember. I don’t know which came first. But when I was in the middle school, I remember that I used to paint. We had a teacher who had studied in the chitrashala [art classes] of Ravishankar Rawal in  Ahmedabad. He (Tuljashankar Trivedi) came from a town nearby called Wadhwan. Wadhwan is an ancient place believed to be the old Vardamanpuri. There were temples there which we used to visit. So I went to his house and he showed me his paintings and I was very impressed. Then we had an Anglo-Indian teacher Mr Thornley.  Now Mr Thornley, I think had a British father and an Indian mother. He was our geography teacher. I became very friendly with him, so he asked me to come home. There I saw a water colour, a British water colour painting. For me this was an introduction to art, which was otherwise not available to me. And I began to paint. Then a new schoolteacher (Labhshankar Rawal) came and he started teaching Gujarati to us. Now we read poetry, and later on I learnt that he himself wrote poetry. I used to scribble poetry myself. I don’t [know] when, but I did. He and I became good friends because of poetry, poetry was the connection. When my first poem was published, it was in a children’s journal, I was over the moon! What has happened... This small town doesn’t know that there was a great poet here!

So it was at that point of time, it was just a year or two before I finished my high school that Ravishankar Rawal, under whom my teacher had studied, and was known to be ‘Kalaguru’, had come to Surendranagar.

Now he came to this (Birdwood) library which I used to frequent. The librarian introduced me to Ravi-bhai. Ravi-bhai said, ‘If you do painting, let us paint the walls of the library’. I said that is a good idea. Ravi-bhai became more and more involved with me and I became more and more involved with him. So he said: look, you must study further. But I said: but my family can’t afford it. He said: try, you will get a scholarship. I will give you a recommendation.

AV: You came to Baroda in 1955. The college was established in 1950. So it must have been the fifth batch. The first batch must have reached the final year.

GMS: I think so.

AV: Was it kind of a cultural shock to you when you came from Surendranagar— from a conservative Muslim family—to Baroda?     

GMS: It was a big cultural shock, to tell you. First of all I did not understand English. That was the language in which we were taught. Second, there were so many women around. And they were all so friendly which I had never seen in my small town Surendranagar. But I gradually learnt everything. And I remember I told myself that I must make friends with somebody who knows English from whom I can learn good English. I remember there was Triloke Kaul, who was a Kashmiri student who spoke very good English. There was a Gujarati chap called Prafull Dave who also spoke in English. And they always spoke in English. They did not speak in any other language.

AV: That must be the case with the teachers also. They also spoke in English, right? Like Sankho Chaudhuri…

GMS: Yes, Sankho Chaudhuri also spoke in English most of the time. Markand Bhatt spoke in Americanised English. Bendre-saab (N.S. Bendre) also spoke English. The medium of instruction was mostly English. And they spoke English all the time. Occasionally in Hindi but most of the time in English. There were some Gujarati students but not many. There were students from different parts of the country and then also in a few years we had students coming from England too. Somebody came from Spain at that point of time. So, in a way it was an international kind of a milieu, and we learnt that Bendre-saab was a major artist of India. He was called Dada. He was a big, hefty man and he literally caused a flutter  the time he entered the studio. Everybody became quiet. But Bendre-saab was very kind to me, I must say. As he taught us, individually. And I think that was one of the issues that they had argued for, that disciplines like Fine Arts should have personal, individual interaction. Between students and teacher. So there was a ratio of 1:10 or 1:15. So each teacher had about 15 students that he could have dialogue with. And second thing, I had never heard this word, that we studied 'art history' right from the beginning. Markand Bhatt used to teach us ‘story of art’, if I am not mistaken.

AV: We were the first university in India to start a Fine Arts faculty. We have always given a great deal of importance to the theory.  

GMS: Yes, exactly. Later on, we learnt that it was not only your heart and hand but also your mind that had to be trained. That was the vision that was put into practice. So, we learnt Hindi and English. We learnt psychology also in those days. And we learnt art history, right from the beginning, the story of world art, so to say, and then we learnt about Chinese, Indian [art], etc. The best part of those years was the study tours. Because we all travelled together—about 50 people. We all go in the second-class compartment, all together. Our teachers made train bookings—sometimes we took a cook with us, sometimes food was cooked  on the train! Such things were done in those days and then landing in a place like Ajanta, landing in a place like Udaipur in Rajasthan, landing in Badami, Aihole in Karnataka, Pattadakkal, Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu. Six years that I was there—I did my Masters also there—six different places, I thoroughly enjoyed. This was my introduction to the world of art, particularly Indian art. And there we even found museums, and if they were nearby, teachers would take us to Rajasthan to look at the miniature paintings, etc., etc. So those were very, what shall I say, wonderful six years.

If I were to tell you about my economic condition, I didn’t have money, to be very frank. What to do? Ravi-bhai had given me a letter of recommendation for the government scholarship—in those days it was the Saurashtra government, because Gujarat came into existence in…

AV: Gujarat was basically part of the Bombay Presidency.

GM: Yes, Bombay Presidency. Gujarat came into existence in 1961, if I am not mistaken. And the scholarship was very erratic. It was Rs 50 a month. Sometimes it didn’t come at all. I had to go to Ahmedabad to argue my case and eventually I learnt that I should do something else to support my studies. I made friends with a gentleman called Arun Shroff who worked in All India Radio. It was because of my poetry that Arun Shroff came to know me through Suresh Joshi. Suresh Joshi was a major literary figure. He was my mentor. He was teaching in the Gujarati department and he was publishing journals. So, Arun Shroff besides inviting me to read my poems on the radio, gave me commissions to make pencil portraits of great Gujarati poets. I made those portraits and I got Rs 25 each. Making two portraits I got equal to my full scholarship! I don’t know how I managed through those five to six years but I did manage somehow. In the very first year, I had realised that there were several students like me and we all learnt how to deal with the economic situation. So, we would order our tiffin from the university hostel and three of us would eat from one tiffin, so, our bill would be reduced. In order to save on accommodation, I  went to live outside the hostels. There were many ways. I had made friends with a Kashmiri artist called Santosh (Ghulam Rasool Santosh). Santosh had come on Government of India scholarship of Rs 250 a month which was a royal sum then, as you can imagine. He could buy Winsor & Newton colours. But he was a very hard-working man and used to paint hell of a lot. He spent so much on art materials that at the end of the month, he ran out of money. Once, Santosh, Prafull Dave and I went to live in Fatehganj. Because I thought that hostel fees was so exorbitant that I could not afford. But we went there but after six months I returned to the hostel. Then our teacher Subramanyan went abroad and he had accommodation in the Kamati Baug, the big park that we have in Baroda, near the zoo. It was called Udyan Bungalow. It was a huge place. Many people could stay there. Jyoti-bhai (Jyoti Bhatt) was there along with several others. I was also given accommodation. It was free. So, khana pina ho gaya, rehne ka ho gaya, baaki kya chahiye [Food is taken care of, accommodation is taken care of, what more do you want?] From morning till evening we were in college, sometimes right up to 11 at night. So, it became a second home. Arun Kolatkar has written in translation of Janabai, something about god. . .

AV: Eating, sleeping. . .

GMS: Yeah. If I were to use his words (replacing the word 'god' with art) you would say you eat art, you drink art, you  sleep  on art, and there is still art to spare. So, there was art all over. This was the best period of my life when I learnt first-hand what the business of art was, and also the difficulty of learning it. I think it was my fourth or fifth year. I think I painted in oil colour, water colour. . . My paintings were even shown in [the annual exhibition of] Baroda Group of Artists.       

AV: Can you shed some kind of light on the language or languages you were using at that time?

GMS: (I suppose you mean language of art). That was something I learnt. . . like I used to do portraits. It was a kind of realism.

AV: No, beyond the academic exercises. . .

GMS: What we did, we saw Bendre-saab painting. . . his mode at that time was sort of Cubist. Like he painted this now famous painting called Woman Pulling Out a Thorn From Her Foot which is after the Khajuraho sculpture, where the figure is cut into triangles and squares. So we also did some bit of Cubism of our own.  But I was not very happy. You see, the teaching was such that… in some ways it was ideal, because our teachers didn’t say that this is good or this is bad. They would not say do this or do that. Particularly, Subramanyan [K.G. Subramanyan], to whom I became quite close even when I was a student. What he would say is: look, tell me if you liked the work of Degas [Edgar Degas] or the work of a particular artist and he would discuss Degas. He would tell you this is how he works. And the questions that you have in your mind, you ask yourself, rather than asking your teacher. So you learn to have answers in your own mind. And I think that was the best thing that we learnt those days. Instead on depending upon teachers for answers, they made us self-reliant. So, you ask question to yourself and then you gradually learn to answer. So, you try out Cubism; if it doesn’t work, you try out something else. You try the third or fourth option or fifth option or whatever options that you have. Once I made a portrait. I will tell you a funny story about it. Bendre-saab must have given my name to a gentleman who had a shop in Mandvi. He had a photograph. It was a small black-and-white photograph of his grandfather. He said, we are opening our new shop and for the opening we want to have a portrait of our dada [grandfather] for that day. There was a time of about ten days. I don’t know how many. I had to paint rather quickly. I painted it and gave it to him. And he gave me Rs 100, so, I was a rich man! But after a couple of days, this gentleman came back and said what have you done to our grandfather? I said, I haven’t done anything. He said: come and see. And I went there. You know, what had happened. In my hurry I had overused linseed oil. Linseed oil had begun to trickle down and the dada looked as if he was crying. I said, don’t worry, I am taking the portrait back and I finished it and gave it to him. But anyway, I had already got my money.

I remember I worked so much in my fifth year and I decided I am not going to think about what comes out and will paint and paint, morning and evening and at night. And it was a period of self-search. What did I paint? I had seen [M.F.] Husain’s works. Husain had been to Baroda. He had given a demonstration. Bendre-saab had called him. We had seen him working and I sort of made friends with him—no not exactly friends, but I came to know him personally. So, I began with horses. But then I did not want to paint horses like Husain. And the thought came to my mind or it happened while I was working that I would paint the tonga [horse-drawn carriage]—horse which is saddled to a tonga—and Surendranagar had plenty of them!

AV: Also, that was the one you saw when you came to Baroda.

GMS: Yes, when I came to Baroda. And because there were no auto-rickshaws or such vehicles in those days, tonga was a common enough conveyance. And I began to paint the tonga. In some way, it was kind of a personal exploration. Vaguely speaking, you thought of being a horse saddled to a tonga, and you want to run away! I must have done about a hundred paintings or more, I don’t know, but in the 1961 show I had a large number of oils [oil paintings], many dealt with the theme of horses and tongas.

AV: You were in the master’s programme.

GMS: Well, there are two stories of the time. One, when I was in first year master’s, Bendre-saab called me. He was the dean in those days. And he said, ‘Mr Sheikh, I have seen you spending a lot of time in the library. So, you must be familiar with art history.’ I said, ‘Yes, sir, we all are taught art history.’ He said, ‘No, Mr Parimoo is going abroad for further studies. I want you to work in his place.’ I was delighted to know that I would get a job and get money. The second thing was how will I do it? I was still a student. So, Bendre-saab was very candid about that. When I said that I still had one more year to go, he said, ‘Isse kya ho gaya? Idhar padho, udhar padhao’ [Teach here and study there meant you teach in the junior classes, and in the senior classes you sit as a student]. And I did that, and finished my master’s. As I said, I had done a lot of paintings during that year. Luckily near the library, there were a number of studios. And I got one of those. So, it was possible for me to spend as much time as I wanted to paint in the premises of the college.

And the second story is. . . As I said, the students could not afford to buy brands like Winsor & Newton but Mani-saab, that is K.G. Subramanyan, developed a medium and that was when he was doing a mural for Jyoti Limited. When he was painting the workmen, the karigars of Jyoti Ltd—that painting is still there—he came up with a new process. He mixed double-boiled linseed oil with beeswax and then heated it up and prepared a kind of a gel. That gel was used as a kind of medium. So, you could buy your colours from the hardware shop which were very cheap. These were powder colours. So, we bought our yellows and greens and whatever from the hardware shop and mixed it with this gel and we used to keep it in dalda tins—those days, people used to eat a ghee called dalda, so everywhere in the studios there were dalda tins! So, we were all having our tin of gel. That allowed us to be free to paint. Then paper, either it was handmade or cheaper paper that was available or cartridge paper. So, you didn’t think of anything. You had the time. You had the medium, you had a place in the college. So, you worked and worked and worked. And I think after the horses, I painted for those three years—some were figurative images, but most of them were horses and tongas, from ’61 to ’63—I had my first show at Jahangir Art Gallery in 1961. I asked Husain to open it and you won’t believe, Husain came attired in white and read a poem. And I was feeling so elated that here is a great artist who is opening my show! I had two more shows—one was in Delhi at Kunika-Chemould Gallery which was then looked after by the famous art critic Richard Bartholomew, and the third one was in Bombay in the Taj Mahal Hotel called the Taj Art Gallery.

The story of 1890 [an artist collective, also known as ‘Group 1890’]. It was around the same time that some of us-- young artists--felt that we had to come up with our own group. There was a first generation of artists—Husain, Krishen Khanna, [Tyeb] Mehta, etc. We are the second generation of artists. They had a group called Progressive Artists Group. We didn’t have any group. So, I met Swaminathan, in Delhi. Swaminathan was also very keen. Actually, we all met at a restaurant. It was called Shalimar. It was run by some south Indian gentleman, it was a south Indian place.

So, 1890 was in fact born in the climate of a restaurant. Rajesh Mehra, Eric Bowen, Swaminathan, Ambadas—Ambadas was from Maharashtra—all three were from Delhi. I was from Gujarat, actually more from Gujarat, Balkrishna Patel was from Ahmedabad, Jeram Patel was from Baroda, Jyoti Bhatt and (Raghav) Kaneria were from Baroda.

AV: Reddeppa Naidu. . .

GMS: Reddeppa Naidu was from the South. So, these were the heady days, like six years of study, three years of three exhibitions, 1890 happening, meeting [Mexican poet and critic] Octavio Paz and here in Baroda, my mentor in Gujarati literature Suresh Joshi kept me busy designing his journals. Not only that, he liked my poetry and wrote about it. There was another gentleman called Prabodh Choksi—he was from the Sarvodaya movement [the Vinobha Bhave-led Sarvodaya movement, which gave  a call for rural reconstruction and upliftment among other objectives] but he ran a journal called Kshitij devoted to Sarvodaya ideology. I don’t know when it happened, but offered Suresh Joshi to edit it, and then it turned into a literary journal. Then a literary group was formed and Suresh was the initiator. He said: let us meet every week. So, on Saturday evening at the residence of Bhogilal Gandhi (another writer and political theorist who published a journal called Vishwamanav) in Kothi area, we all met and Suresh-bhai would bring a number of books—French poetry, Spanish poetry, ultramodern poetry. We came to know about Federico Garcia Lorca, Rilke and Mallarme. These were all new names. And he would have their translations into English and he would read them. My three mentors all came together on that literary platform.

AV: When you talk about Suresh Joshi, it comes to my mind that it is often mentioned that you were the first one to sort of use free verse in Gujarati poetry. Is that true?

GMS: I don’t know who used it first. I don’t want to make any claims but I started breaking off; I had tried all the Sanskrit metres, I had tried what you call geya form of poetry, which means something which can be sung. So, those were in metres but of different kind besides Sanskrit metres. I had tried all but I was restless, as much as I was restless in my painting. And I worked day and night. I thought that my poetry should also undergo a kind of transformation as my painting and I decided I would not use any metre—I am going to use  free speech. I wanted to use the language commonly spoken by me or others. So, that is something like prose poetry. It came under a big attack at that time. And then my poetic imagery also, I drew from all sources; for instance, I read Baudelaire, which Suresh-bhai  had read out to me—Flowers of Evil [Fleur de Mal  by the French poet Charles Baudelaire]. In my poetry also, I would invoke images which were not very pleasant. There was also sexuality and eroticism. And all these things happened simultaneously. In a way, a breakthrough in both painting as well as in poetry or writing happened during those three years.

AV: What was London like in those days? It was the place—Royal College of Art— where a new generation of Pop artists was emerging, where there was this new show called New Contemporaries which showed artists like R. B. Kitaj, David Hockney and others. But they must have left by the time you joined RCA.

GMS: Let me say what it was, basically it was also another big culture shock. Like going to Baroda. I was reborn. Looking at such a city like London, and landing in a place like Royal College of Art, which we had heard about, was all a great, but unnerving experience.

So although it was a shock, gradually I learnt to find my feet. I was also prepared for the shock. The first thing on landing in London that I did, was see a film. I told my friend Prafull Dave, who was my senior in Baroda and had already migrated to London, was that I wanted to see the film called Eight and a Half  by Federico Fellini. That film was on, I had read about it in the Time magazine or somewhere. Second thing I wanted—it happened to me, not that I was prepared for-- was Jazz. I was very curious about Jazz. There were other Commonwealth scholars—a lady who was a linguist, another gentleman who was a Chinese. We three decided to go out one night when we were together, just a day after we had landed, to go to a jazz club. I was thrilled. And we reached Ronnie Scott’s—the famous club which is still running. Would you believe, a few days ago, my son Kabir had been to Ronnie Scott’s, so after how many years. . .  

AV: London was also known as Swinging London.

GMS: Swinging London. It was swinging London because it was the time when England was coming out, when the younger generation in England came out on the road. They decided to severe its link with the past. So, there were young boys and girls dancing in the streets. There would be some kind of music. . . Beatles came about, the Rolling Stones came about. And Royal College was a hub of Pop culture. . . and if I am not mistaken, once Rolling Stones came and played in a Saturday night party of the Students Union of RCA. . .

AV: It is quite possible because Peter Blake has actually done a record cover.

GMS: Peter Blake happened to be one of my tutors. I had three tutors—Merlyn Evans, Sandra Blow and Peter Blake during the three years I spent there. Third year it was Peter Blake. So I knew about him making a cover of Beatles' ‘Sgt Peppers' Lonely Hearts Club Band'.  In jazz I heard [Ornette] Coleman, I also heard [Thelonious] Monk. I heard several other musicians, also various other things. But about studies I felt that I had already studied enough of art in Baroda. I didn’t want to study further. I had gone there to look at art, particularly art in Europe. I looked at everything in the museums, because the best museums are in England—[in] London. And they are free. You don’t pay anything. National Gallery has got some of those wonderful paintings of Italian Renaissance masters and there are a number of other museums. I stayed in Hampstead in my first year and I remember we used to walk over the Heath and go to the other side, and go to this Kenwood Museum which had a magnificent Rembrandt portrait. 

AV: Perhaps you could talk about the paintings that you did during your RCA days? Also, perhaps you could tell us about the thesis that you wrote on Kota.

GMS: Well, Royal College was a very interesting place in those days. And I enjoyed being there. Once I overcame the shock of coming to such a place, I made friends in a strange sort of way by barging into studios of other artists, which is not done in England. They usually keep their place reserved. So they must have thought of me as a nosy Indian, you know, who barges into everybody’s places, but I made friends like that. And some of them are still my friends. That was one thing. And London, swinging, pretty, it was in fashion. . . and the Beat generation came from America, new poetry emerged like in the voices of [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti, [Gergory] Corso etc., and there were numerous bookshops in London where you got everything—I had bought a copy of Howl by [Allen] Ginsberg that was available there. Little magazines also came out and that gave me idea that when I returned to India, we should also do something like that. We finally did produce a little magazine, Vrishchik in 1969. But England was also a learning experience. Besides, England was a springboard from where I could go to Europe. I hitchhiked. In those days, students, those who didn’t have money, hitchhiked. I had a duffel bag with one pair of clothes, camera or something, and just walked down outside the city, stood there on the road, and just signalled by hand that I wanted to go in that direction. And anybody who wanted to give you a lift may stop the car and take you if he or she was going in that direction. I did almost entire Italy like that, right from Milan to Naples. I went all the way and thoroughly enjoyed it because I saw all the paintings I had seen in books in person. Once I went to Urbino, this small town which had a palace and a fortress. In the fortress you have this museum, where you have Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation [Flagellation of Christ]. It is a tiny painting, but what a painting it is! To be facing, is something like a life-transforming experience. So many of such paintings. Like I said, [Ambrogio] Lorenzetti, Sassetta, all these painters became a part of my life. This left me thinking about what I could do. And in some way these painters led the way. Secondly, I was in the Royal College of Art. The painting department of the Royal College was on Exhibition Road which was next door to Victoria and Albert [V&A] Museum. We had free access. All students of RCA had free access to V&A. There was a private passage from the Painting School and I would go to have lunch there. On the way, I would see the Indian section with a large number of paintings on display. And I began to look at them carefully. So, there my interest in Indian painting doubled or tripled. Then I met Robert Skelton who was in the Indian section. And when I learnt that I had to write a dissertation for my RCA, the final exam, I decided to write on Indian painting. I went to Robert and he said, ‘Since you are interested in Indian painting and you told me that you liked Kota. . . why don't you write on it?’ I must have expressed special interest in a particular Kota painting on display. It was a forest with a moon on top and I vaguely thought of [Henri] Rousseau. I thought Indian painting and Rousseau. . . how do the two work? So Robert said, ‘I have a good friend Stuart Cary Welch, an American scholar of art who is passionate about Kota. I will give you his address. You write to him. Have a communication and then come here. I will show you whatever Kota we have and then you write your dissertation.’ That was how I wrote a dissertation on Kota. And that further involved me in Indian painting, particularly, looking at what I call folios. I use the word folio. I don’t use the word miniature. Folio is not a small thing, it is a painting which you hold in your hand.

After three years in England, I planned my journey back home. Obviously, my scholarship had come to an end in the months of July–August. I decided that I will go all the way home on the road. I had hitchhiked in Italy earlier but now I thought that I should see other countries. I started from London and went to Paris. Wandered around and even met Akbar [Padamsee] and [S.H.] Raza. I preferred walking in order to save money and at the same time to enjoy the landscape. It is wonderful to be able to walk in a beautiful city like Paris and then discover beautiful art which is in the Louvre [Museum], etc. So I started from the city of Paris, went to Milan, Italy and then right up to Naples stopping at different spots like Assisi, Arezzo, Florence, right up to Rome and from Rome to Naples. Then from Bari I went to Brindisi, took a boat to Athens, wandered around Athens, took a train via Yugoslavia to Istanbul, stopped in Istanbul for a few days and went to other cities. From there I took a train journey through Aleppo, Syria—but didn’t stop there. Basra was the final stop, and passing Baghdad, I reached Basra on an all night bus. A Jewish gentleman I was travelling in the bus warned me of the Palestinian movement which was about to rise.

On the boat I took from Basra to Bombay, I met a Sri Lankan chap. He was like me; a student, who had finished his studies in England and was going back. He told me that Sri Lanka is very peaceful but there was going to be turmoil. I didn’t know anything about it. He said something was going to happen and—as you know—The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) happened. So, two people informed me about the politics of the time and I came to know because I was travelling with them. I landed up in Bombay at the house of Rasik Shah, my dear friend, and in whose house I got married later.