Monday, June 14, 2010

Discreet Charm of the Unconventional

Discreet Charm of the Unconventional
Saeed Naqvi
Dated: 12.06.2010

Meeting Anolie Ela Menon, the brilliant painter, reminded me of the numerous off-beat characters who were once part of my life.

But, Anjolie first: The conversation glides past Genet and Ionesco. Inevitably, Paris looms large. “Oh! How I kick myself for not drinking all that marvellous French wine those days”.

Next moment she is cradling a bleating baby goat just outside the Nizamuddin shrine with the expert ease of goatherds. In fact it is impossible to arrest Anjolie Ela Menon in one defining phrase.

In Delhi’s art circles one meets all sorts of people but there are some one would like to know more. Anjolie is distinctly in the latter category, always fluent, unaffected with those candid, sharp eyes.

But my image of her, for reasons unknown, was one of snooty cosmopolitanism until a TV interview took me to her studio located in the most cavernous by lanes which zig zag their way to the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia. “Ofcourse the spirit of Sufism influences me greatly.” Then after a pause “I don’t believe in religion in the conventional way”.

When she hears of famous Qawwals singing at the shrine, she does turn up for attendance clapping and swaying. How do you square this with her passion for jazz?

Just when you begin to lazily notice in her a touch of restrained bohemianism, she take you by surprise all over again.

After studying art in Paris, galavanting around the world with friends, escaping Francis Newton Souza’s advances, “I returned to marry my childhood love”, distinguished Naval officer, Raja Menon “the most well read man I know”.

The bleating goat Anjolie is playing with in the torrid sun by the side of Nizamuddin’s largest Madarsa is no artistic affectation. Walk into her studio and the nudes, the Russian priest, figures in oil are all interspersed with people carrying a goat or leading one. There is this inexplicable interest in the bleating herd.

Since Anjolie places Hussain at the lofty, iconic height as one of her early influences, one wonders if Hussain’s earliest studio in Jama Masjid’s Naaz hotel conditioned the choice of her studio. But this suggestion of imitativeness would be unfair. It would not do justice to this creative free spirit who straddles several worlds.

As I have said at the outset, she triggers old memories which ferret out other unconventional characters in such short supply these days. Anjolie is a success story; others are not. But they share one thing: they are off the beaten track. In my formative years, there were two westbound streams. One lot, creatures of civil lines and the cantonments (other than the princes) sought admission in Oxford or Cambridge. The more unconventional went not to England but to Hampstead to mingle with struggling writers, poets, playwrights, painters, politicians and professional dilettantes.

Long years ago, Yen for the off-beat led me to the high decibel invective which passed for intellectual banter in Hampstead’s populous pubs. Among the loudest was a short man with a goatie beard ranting for attention. This was my friend Sashti Brata. He was a writer of exceptional talent but short on themes.

His search for a place in the sun manifested itself in ways that constantly found him on the wrong side of the law. One of his irrepressible desires was to have a London street named after him. To realize this dream, he had carved in brass, about six inches tall, the following legend: BRATA’s CORNER. Every night this legend was nailed on the wall behind his house on Savernake Road.

The phrase “every night” in this narrative has poignant relevance. Because every morning, after having drunk a carafe of black coffee and smoked nearly a box of cigarettes, when Brata clothed himself to go behind the house to examine his immortality attached to the wall, he discovered that the Bobby on the beat had pulled out the brass letters, nail by nail. Sisyphus like, Sasthi would embark on the project again, touched not the slightest by intimations of mortality the next morning.

My hometown, Lucknow, was ofcourse, God’s own nursery for off beat people, stone broke but laughing. If you were prosperous you had to pretend to be otherwise to find entrÄ“. Lucknow had taken its cue from classical Brahminism: intellectual life was anti wealth. But Lucknow was a city of Nawabs, you might ask. Yes, but the Nawabs themselves were more broke than most. As I have said elsewhere Lucknow’s decline began in 1856 when Wajid Ali Shah was transported to Matia Burj near Calcutta.

Among our dearest friends was one Safdar, a wit, amateur poet, racouteur who talked incessantly of the rising cost of living because his monthly budget of Rs.20 (twenty) had been exhausted ten days before the month’s end!

You had to book a table for a meal with Safdar weeks in advance. He was in such demand for his scintillating company. The most succinct observation on Safdar came from my friend Vinod Mehta, editor of Outlook. “The fellow doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from; all he knows is it will be a terrific one.”

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