Saturday, January 19, 2008

Life is like a tapestry

This is a story with an anti-climax, warns artist-turned-author Gogi Saroj Pal right at the onset. She then pours herself a cup of black tea, puts on her reading glasses and sits back to read aloud from her book, Phulkari. The Hindi is simple, Pal’s diction flawless.

The story she selects — titled Sewaiyya — is about Sarita, who lived with her husband in Yamuna Nagar, Uttar Pradesh. One night Sarita’s husband walked out on her. Just like that. Sarita was left to fend for herself and her newborn. She sold vermicelli (sewai) on a charpoy outside her house, struggled to meet both ends and brought up her son. Thirty-five years later, her husband returned home. He was terminally ill and stone-broke. Sarita welcomed him back, despite her son’s protests. Her logic was simple. She wanted to know what it was like to share a relationship with a man.

Pal pauses for a few seconds to let the story sink in. She then drops the book on the coffee table, shakes her head and says she disagreed with Sarita’s rationalisation. “Our urban, educated sensibility dictates that Sarita should be nursing a massive grudge against her husband,” says Pal. But the small-town vermicelli-seller — whom Pal met everytime she accompanied her mother on her ration-shopping trips in Yamuna Nagar — turned all common logic on its head. That’s why Sarita’s story stuck with the author and found its way into her first book.

Gogi Saroj Pal can talk tomes about her book — which she has written, edited, designed and published. Phulkari is a collection of 15 short stories on women. Pal says she explores an alternate reality through these stories. “Our middle-class morals and education tutor us to look at life from a certain intellectual premise,” she says. But the 15 protagonists of Phulkari break such ideological barriers. The book is about women whose attitudes reflect an altered dimension of truth. “They have a different conviction, which is not mine. That’s what makes them interesting to me,” she says. Clearly, Pal’s heroines don’t have to agree with her.

The name Phulkari is high on symbolism. ‘Phulkari’ is a popular embroidery tradition in the agricultural societies of north-west India. Traditionally, after the men left for work, the women would wind up their household chores and then sit down for a collective embroidery session. Embroidery was just an excuse. This was the women’s recoup time. “They spent quality time with themselves. They would brood, contemplate and reflect on life,” comments Pal.

In 2000, Pal held an exhibition of paintings, which she called Embroidering Phulkari and Memories. And when she wrote her book, she borrowed the name yet again.

Pal’s workplace — a room in her south Delhi flat — looks like a typical artist’s den. Paintings, paints and brushes are sprawled across the well-lit, sparsely furnished room. The computer table, which stands in one corner, is stacked with canvas and colours. Pal completes the easy-going picture, dressed in her working clothes — polka-dotted pyjamas, khadi jacket and rugged-looking sandals. A flask of black tea and a pack of cigarettes lie within arm’s reach.

Pal is working on a graphic software, Corel Draw, on her lap-top and seems surprisingly sure-fingered with the machine for a 59-year-old. She calls herself a “techno-savvy painter”. “Computers have made life simple,” she says. “Now I can make a hundred versions of one painting.”

Leave alone art, Pal even wrote, designed and published 50 copies of her book on the computer. The recent book, she says, happened quite by chance. “I was ill and out of circulation last year,” she elaborates. So the artist used her two months of bed rest to write the stories that were bubbling inside her.

Pal says the writer in her didn’t come as a surprise at all. Writing runs in her blood, she says. Pal’s paternal uncle, Yashpal, was a famous left-wing Hindi writer during the pre-Independence days. And he wanted his niece to follow in his footsteps.

But the niece was not about to become putty in her uncle’s hands. “I detested constant advice and guidance. I knew if I took to writing, I would always be regarded second-best to him,” recalls Pal. So she stopped writing in protest and dropped her pen.

Pal picked up the paintbrush instead. She studied art at Vanasthali, Rajasthan and then Lucknow. In 1967 she came to Delhi in search of free-lance work. “It took me a long time to get established in Delhi,” remembers Pal. The city had only two art galleries, no concept of freelance work and little professionalism. And woman artist were two words never uttered in the same breath.

“I went from pillar to post looking for work,” recalls Pal. It was in 1975 that she got her big break when the Black Partridge art gallery invited her to do a solo show on the occasion of the International Year of Women.

Pal had hit bull’s eye, for women were her favourite painting subject. “That’s because I understand a woman’s point of view more than anything else,” she says. She has painted on themes like Mother and Child, Prisoners, Eternal Bird, Naika and Kamdhenu. All these paintings converged on a central theme of ‘Being a Woman’ and the unequal relationships that exist in society.

Like art, like book. Phulkari is about women too. It’s about women who don’t follow a formula in life, says Pal. “These stories are difficult to understand in an urban reference,” she adds. The author says she draws modest, yet meaningful observations through her stories.

Pal’s personal favourite is a story on her encounter with a tribal woman at a hospital in Himachal Pradesh. Pal bumped into her when she came out of the hospital for a smoke. The two got talking. The tribal woman asked Pal how many husbands she had. “I was mighty offended,” remembers Pal. When the woman heard the author had one husband, she said, “Poor you,” with genuine sympathy. Pal then popped the same question back to her. The woman laughed, blushed and said she had eight. She pointed to the nine-month-old boy in her arms — he was her eighth husband.

Polyandry was an age-old custom followed in this hill tribe to keep property within the family. “But for the women, many husbands were a security against widowhood,” says Pal. Exploitation was the last feeling on this tribal woman’s mind. “So who are we to decide what’s right or wrong for her?” asks Pal.

Technically, Phulkari is Pal’s second book. The first — called Letters to Punni from Garhi Studios — is a compilation of letters she wrote to her son when he studied in a Dehra Dun school. She published 30 copies of the book in 1997.

Pal prefers to talk about her son in the present tense. It is her way of coping with loss. Pal’s son died in a road accident nine years ago. “I had big dreams for my son. I wanted to make him fiercely independent,” she says. Pal lived through the loss by immersing herself in work. “Painting keeps both the mind and hands busy. I blocked out everything else,” she says.

The book is a story of a mother communicating to her son. “I wrote to my son on any issue that came to my head — art, Dussehra, Independence Day, my exhibitions — anything,” she says.

The artist-mother is quick to shake off her sorrow. She is back to discussing her book, the uniform ideological law unfairly imposed on women, Corel Draw and her new painting exhibition. “Curiosity is the spice of my life. It drives me to know more of everything — from female fundas to computers,” she concludes.


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