The art of travel

The art of travel

It’s not just natural charms that pull you towards Puhputra, a bewitching hamlet in Chhattisgarh, but its unique art not yet displayed to the world, that makes it enigmatic, writes Bharati Motwani.

Everywhere in the city I meet people who only ever seem to travel on foreign vacations — but when you fly into a strange land, touch-down for a week or two, skim lightly over its places and peoples, all you really see is pretty scenery. A month later, all you have are disjointed fragments of memories, a fridge magnet or two, and hundreds of digital pictures you will probably never look at again. For, without absorption there cannot be enrichment.

But there is a better way to travel — one that’s deep, not wide. And it’s usually in places that are familiar, not strange. It is in the familiar that the brain is better able to forge those strong, expansive neural connections that lead to a deep and lasting experience.

A famous photographer once wrote of why he only likes to photograph his own country — “My photographic instincts work better in my homeland. I comprehend my country. Without that comprehension, a picture is skin without a soul”.

But it is also true that sometimes we need to be taught  a different way of seeing. My teacher was Stephen Huyler, an American anthropologist, photographer and author of seven beautiful books on Indian culture.

Stephen has been coming to India for 30 years and is what is usually described as an “old India hand” — which usually means that he knows far more about the country than most of us who live here. With Stephen I travelled to Puhputra, a perfectly ordinary village in the forests of Surguja district in northern Chhattisgarh.

Ambikapur, the closest town and district headquarter, is the usual grimy muddle of unsightly sheds and arbitrary traffic like most Indian towns. Puhputra is 20 km from Ambikapur, and the first thing that registers when you move away from the town and into the countryside is a return to order. Quite contrary to the belief that urban living demonstrates man’s dominance of nature, most of our towns and cities convey instead a loss of control, as if they were invaded by an incoherent and malignant inorganic mutation. Puhputra, with its tended fields, livestock smells and swept mud streets, was a return to civilisation.

Few had even heard of Puhputra until the late 80’s. The story of the village is the story of a woman named Sonabai. As stories go, it was not a particularly remarkable one in itself, and probably one that would have gone unnoticed and unsung, except for a chance discovery. Today, Sonabai is the recipient of a President’s Award, she is the subject of a multi-award winning documentary film, a book, art exhibitions in the United States and Australia, and there is even a proposal to use her story for a full-length Hindi feature film. There is an award for folk art instituted in her name — the Sonabai Rajwar Puraskaram and there was even a move to rename the village after her! Sonabai Rajwar, if she had been alive, would have been mystified.

She was a village girl, married at the age of 13; second wife to a much older man — an arrangement common enough in rural India. Ten years into her marriage, her husband, a domineering and jealous man, decreed that she be confined to her home, never seeing anyone but him and her infant son. This was unusual, though by the standards of the injustices of Indian patriarchy, not excessive. And Sonabai accepted it, the way simple women across India accept much, without dwelling too much on the cruelty of it.

For the next 15 years, Sonabai, who had until then lived in the heart of a large extended family, was made to live in near total isolation in a windowless house at the edge of the village. It is hard to know what she felt, for she was not given to questioning her fate. And later in life, when fame and recognition arrived unexpectedly at her mud-washed doorstep, she accepted that too with unsurprised equanimity.

Creative instincts

What is clear though was her capacity for joy and great beauty even in her extreme loneliness. To amuse her baby son Babu, she began to make  toys with whatever materials she had. With clay dug from beside her well, she fashioned figures — monkeys, goats, cows, birds and human figures. She made her own brushes with hemp and found colours in her own kitchen, painting the figures in bright, happy colours. Soon she could not stop — over the years, transforming her home into a wonderland of playful, whimsical creatures.

Wide-eyed snakes, impish flute-players, happy songbirds and naughty monkeys perched on the bamboo and clay jaalis (latticed screens) that she built and placed around her inner courtyard to shade and cool her windowless house. Bas reliefs of flowering, fruiting trees decorated her mud walls. It was art of a kind rarely seen.

Raw, untutored and pure, yet surprisingly spare and sophisticated, it sprang true and strong from the well-springs of the human spirit. Sonabai had never made clay sculptures before, no one in her natal family was artistic. She was illiterate. Her art came from nowhere and it was beautiful. Above all, it was happy and appreciative in spirit. Her creatures, though not realistically styled, were all hugely expressive in their postures — alive and energetic, their expressions innocent and artless.

If her husband Holi Ram thought anything of her creative outpourings, he never mentioned it and did not even seem to notice it. Just so long as she stayed inside the house and finished her housework. After 15 years, Holi Ram ended his wife’s imprisonment. Her son was now a tall, strapping teenager  and Sonabai was 40 years old. Soon neighbours began to drop by and exclaim at her beautiful home.

In 1983, her house was discovered by a scout from the Bharat Bhavan Museum in Bhopal who actually sawed off one of her jaalis and carted it off to Bhopal; he even commissioned more screens. When her husband found there was money to be made, he was excited. So unique and fresh was Sonabai’s vision that recognition was instantaneous and in 1985 she reluctantly travelled to Delhi to receive the Rashtrapati Puraskar from the President, the highest award for art in the country.

And soon this shy, aging, introverted woman who had never before travelled even 25 km to Ambikapur, found herself demonstrating her craft in Queensland, Australia and at the Mingei Museum of Folk Art in San Diego, California. Accompanied by her son who was now in his 40’s, she retreated further into the folds of her rough-woven shawl as she was taken to Disneyland and to local supermarkets. She would probably have made more sense of Mars.

Sonabai passed away in 2007. In the intervening years, she received a government stipend to teach her art to young artists, which she did in between caring for her household and grandchildren. Sonabai’s life and work has brought a certain economic and social change to Puhputra. Women in rural India have always decorated the walls, door-frames and stoops of their homes with auspicious drawings. Now in Puhputra, their everyday art is being accorded a  new respect and appreciation. Visitors have started coming by, visiting village homes to look at and sometimes buy terracotta art — some in the ‘Sonabai Style’ and some in the artists’ own evolving styles.

Sonabai’s home, now presided over by her daughter-in-law Rajanbai, was familiar to me from the film I had seen, and all the images I had Googled on the net. Yet to see Sonabai’s art in situ, to be among her thoughts when she was confined in this house, her well and her kitchen, was to absorb a context and feel a kinship. Rajanbai served us a delicious meal as we sat in her mud-washed verandah, and told us stories of her own visit to America to demonstrate the terracotta art she learned from Sonabai.

Later, over sugary tea, Stephen pondered the ethics of displacing a village artist from his culture, his cuisine, economy and comprehension. The ethics of taking them out of their village and putting them up in a Park Manor Suite with feather beds and
incomprehensible bathroom fittings, taking them to Disneyland or a Gay Parade.

Somehow, I don’t think Sonabai would have minded too much. She would have viewed it all with that same non-judgemental equilibrium that she viewed everything that life brought her way. And she would have turned it into art.

We visited the home of Atma Das, one of Sonabai’s particularly talented pupils. And here again experienced that wonderful and uniquely Indian way of welcoming strangers into your home. Being served in their best tea cups and being offered the very best the household has. Atma Das’s mud-plastered home is as aesthetically beautiful as Sonabai’s, but his style is distinctively his own — more masculine and delineated.

Colourful season

It was the time of the Harvest Festival of Chherta and soon the open maidan in Puhputra filled up with dancing troupes from surrounding villages, crowding in from between the paddy fields. The space became a whirling maelstrom of vivid costumes, peacock feathers, singing women and men beating drums. A haat came up selling wares from all over the Surguja region.

And though we were clearly outsiders — over-tall, pale-skinned and weighed down with cameras — alien in every way, yet in minutes we were incorporated into the crowd, an excited child clambering onto my lap for a better view of the drummers and dancers. I put away my camera. Life cannot be viewed through a lens.

As dusk gave way to a deep, moonless darkness, a screen was set up in the maidan for Stephen to screen the film he had made on Sonabai and on the village of Puhputra. The villagers huddled together on the ground, shushing their children as the screen lit up. As they sat absorbed by the flickering images of their village, there descended a moment of indefinable tranquility and preternatural connect.

At the Chherta fair I met Drumil Agarwal, scion of a Marwari business family that migrated to Ambikapur two generations ago. And though he runs  a motorcycle showroom, his heart clearly lies elsewhere. He spoke with knowledge and passion of the treasures of this little explored corner of India — the tattooed Gonds, their mysterious herbs, the dark-skinned forest girls with flowers in their hair and pots of intoxicating mahuwa on their hips; the Banjara women of Irikpal village who sew cowries onto brightly coloured accessories; the bamboo basketry, beaten bell-metal objects and cast iron work.

He told stories of places and practices you’ll never find on Google — the singing stones of Thinthini, the strange demagnetised spots at Kusmi, the oldest amphitheatre in the world at Ramgarh and the cave art at Jogimara. He told us of the wool carpets woven at nearby Mainpat, a craft that travelled here from Tibet 50 years ago when refugees from Chinese oppression were given asylum on a plateau in these forested tracts. The weaves of these carpets have evolved into an intriguing fusion of Tibetan motifs and local idiom.

So much of Chhattisgarh is a mystery, shrouded in teak and sal forest, inhabited by ancient tribes, or rendered inaccessible to the casual traveller by the presence of armed Maoist insurgents in some parts. Much of India’s mineral and forest wealth lies in these wild and beautiful tracts. As governments, industry and predatory corporates circle ever closer, the adivasis too gear for conflict. From the inside, the view of this conflict is considerably different.

These are the people of whom British anthropologist Verrier Elwin who worked closely with Gandhi and Nehru, wrote, “These are the real swadeshi products of India, in whose presence all others are foreign. These are the ancient people with moral rights and claims thousands of years old. They were here first and should come first in our regard.” And once again, it is so important to learn a different way of seeing.

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