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A Suitable Painter

“From shapes, through words and colours and moods, back to words again, through couplets”.

When a wordsmith wields the brush, you know there’s going to be some vibrant wordplay.

On Friday, Vikram Seth and Absolut Vodka unveiled in New Delhi three stunning yet subtle paintings by the author-poet as part of the Absolut Art series. This is the first time that Vikram, till now known as an author-poet-calligrapher-singer-sculptor-photographer-print maker-lithographer and charmer, revealed to the world that he was quite the painter too.

Absolut Seth is a set of three paintings that plays around with the shape of the Absolut bottle and Vikram’s many talents with ink, oils and imagination. Straddling three languages — Chinese, Urdu and Hindi — the canvases are all about bright colours, rhymes, rhythms and hidden meanings.

Absolut Art is a 30-year endeavour by the vodka-makers to engage with the creative world and today the collection comprises over 800 works, boasting of names from Andy Warhol and Francesco Clemente to Louise Bourgeois and Beatrice Cussol.

“My idea is not to do new things, to do dance next or to vault over buildings in a single bound on a pogo stick. My idea is to do something that grabs me in a way that I can’t resist. And then whether I do well in it or I do badly in it... what’s the worst that can happen? You fail. So? Big deal.”

Feet up in a comfortable couch and a glass of red wine by his side at the chic Cheri bar and lounge, a grape’s throw from the Qutub Minar, Vikram got talking to Metro about putting his paintings out in the world, the iconic Absolut bottle and a curious Calcutta connection to it all.

“I’ve been doing this for many years, whether portraits or landscapes... but yes, it was largely a private pleasure. People have seen some bits of my calligraphy, though. I did some at the British Museum and a tiny bit during the Kolkata Literary Meet or KLM [January 2012]. There was a lovely pun to it... KLM to the Bengali kolom [pen]. During the inauguration, I wrote in Arabic and on the other side of the stage, Sunil Gangopadhyay wrote Kolom in Bengali.”

For one of his sessions at the Lit Meet, Vikram dwelt at length on his Chinese and Arabic calligraphy, and the shape of words and the world of shapes. “After KLM, someone mentioned to me that it would be interesting to use the shape of the Absolut bottle. I initially wondered if it was going to constrain me in some way. But I did remember that lots of painters and sculptors and writers, like Kurt Vonnegut or Warhol, had used the bottle in such different and intriguing ways... like Bourgeois, who’s done the famous Maman, which is both protective and yet threatening, with the spider. So I thought to myself, I don’t want to do something that will become a repeat of something that someone else had done. Also, I wondered ‘will it intrigue and interest me?’”

Eventually Vikram was so fascinated with the concept that he came up with not one but three artworks. And that someone Vikram mentioned is Jeet Banerjee of Calcutta-based Gameplan Sports, which organises KLM.

“The germ of the idea entered my mind when I saw Vikram’s calligraphy at KLM and also his poem Oak in The Rivered Earth, which is in the shape of a tree. I began to wonder if he would like to write poetry in the shape of the Absolut bottle,” said Jeet, who has been involved with the Absolut Art co-creations since it started in India in 2010.

During his conversations with Vikram in Calcutta, Jeet learnt that Vikram sculpts too — with bronze, stone, clay and wood. “I asked him if he would like to sculpt the Absolut bottle, maybe with a few lines etched on the body of the bottle.”

Absolut Art started in India with artist Subodh Gupta, who created an installation in the shape of the bottle with his signature utensils in late 2010. Last year, Bharti Kher did the bottle with her leitmotif, bindis.

But Vikram didn’t commit immediately, he wanted to think about it. “I told them, if I don’t like what I’ve done, then forgive me but I’m not going to put it out in the world. They said, yes, that’d be fine.”

It was finally the shape of the Absolut bottle that clinched it. “The bottle allows you much more of your imagination. It’s the simplest shape yet it is a very recognisable shape.” No one would mistake the Absolut bottle for something else, he pointed out. And that for the artist means more ground to play around.

“One of the ventricles of my heart is permanently in Calcutta. After all, I was born in the Elgin Nursing Home, I love the city. Though I don’t really speak Bengali, I feel very happy to be called ‘amader Bikram’... I remember you even mentioned this in your article during KLM”

“So, for me, first it was the shape. Then from the shape came the texts or words and moods and visions and then from that came the poetry, the couplets. They complement the paintings or can be read separately or can contrast with the paintings.... I’m not quite sure what the relationship between the paintings and the couplets really is. They are associative in different ways in the three paintings,” he said.

“Different interpretations can be cast on the same shape. Similarly, there are different shapes that can be cast on the same words. For example, in the green painting, the word “Pyasa” can be written and interpreted in quite different ways. The bottle that’s lurko-ing [tottering] is kind of peeya sa [drunk] and then there’s the beloved or piya sa, standing by the side of the solid couple.”

In the evening, there was a party (with cocktails and ‘serious nibbles’ said the invitation) at the same venue. Above the DJ’s console in the open-air section of Cheri a screen beamed the three paintings. In between sips of cranberry or tomato or basil-flavoured vodka creations and “seriously” sumptuous nibbles, some guests turned their attention to the painted bottles.

“There’s a fifth bottle in the green painting. I just can’t see it!” exclaimed one. [Go on, look carefully. Don’t worry, we will tell you by the end of the article if you haven’t figured it out already.]

Back to the afternoon chat. Prose, poetry, music, calligraphy, sculpture and now painting... is there anything that you don’t do, we asked Vikram.

“The important thing is it should not be ‘good enough’ considering you’re a writer. It should be ‘good enough’ in its own right. I give the example of someone like Amit Chaudhuri, who is a wonderful Hindustani classical singer, not wonderful considering he’s a writer.”

“Even in the list that you’ve mentioned, I can hardly claim to do music. I sing it but I don’t create it. If I’m singing a Schubert song, it’s not like creating an original composition. It may have my interpretation, my realisation and whatever form I may want to give it but it’s a different thing than when you create a poem or a song. Of course, it is true that in Indian classical music, when you sing a khayal, you are using the bandish to create something original. Because you are improvising and improvisation is a form of creation. But when I am singing a Western song, then it’s not.

“But, well, my idea is not to do new things, to do dance next or to vault over buildings in a single bound on a pogo stick. My idea is to do something that grabs me in a way that I can’t resist. And then whether I do well in it or I do badly in it... what’s the worst that can happen? You fail. So? Big deal.”

Vikram is clear that his art should not be judged because or in spite of his writing. He said he had created a fourth canvas, with the text in German. But it wasn’t “good enough” to show.

“The important thing is it should not be ‘good enough’ considering you’re a writer. It should be ‘good enough’ in its own right. I give the example of someone like Amit Chaudhuri, who is a wonderful Hindustani classical singer, not wonderful considering he’s a writer. May be I got the opportunity because I was ‘etc’ and people were intrigued by the fact that it’s a painting but the work has to stand on its own... If it doesn’t, you know, it fails.”

Soon the conversation veered back to the city where it all started — his Absolut Art and he himself, actually.

“One of the ventricles of my heart is permanently in Calcutta. After all, I was born in the Elgin Nursing Home, I love the city. I have spent a fair amount of time in Calcutta, when I come to think of it. I spent the first two-and-a-half years of my life there and then again when I was six and then a while later again. Though I don’t really speak Bengali, I feel very happy to be called ‘amader Bikram’... I remember you (Metro) even mentioned this in your article during KLM,” he smiled, reminding us how he was almost named Amit because “Shesher Kobita was read to my mother while I was kicking her inside.”

No conversation with Vikram Seth can be complete without us asking him about the sequel to his A Suitable Boy. And no conversation with Vikram Seth can be complete without him giving us a tongue-in-cheek reply, saying little, charming a lot. Friday was no different.

Q: What about the sequel to A Suitable Boy? Any updates?

A: They’re very shy, these people. They don’t like being talked about (broad smile, twinkling eyes).

[Clue: Look on the top left of the painting in green to see a faint bottle number 5 and the pyasa pyala.]

Is Vikram Seth the most multi-faceted writer of his generation? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com