“Youth is a gift of nature, but age is a work of art” – Stanislaw Jerzy Lee
On my recent trip to India, I was blessed to meet and reconnect with the man who taught me all that I know about art. My art “Master”, as I always referred to him, taught me art for roughly 13 years and I met him this July after nearly 25 years.
When I was a child, my mother tried to push me into Carnatic music or Bharatanatyam like most other children in my community. She is big on everyone having a hobby/art that would relax them and give them pleasure. Her own was sewing. When I showed no interest in sewing, music, or dance she gave up in disgust… or so I thought. But when I was nine years old, she saw me drawing and wondered if maybe she had just been pushing the wrong type of art on me. In those days, it was hard to find someone who taught art outside of school. Nowadays, art classes are very common in Chennai. Back then, the standard practice was to send children to vocal music lessons or to learn to play an instrument or some kind of traditional dance. But my mother was always ahead of her times and soon embarked on a mission to find me a private art teacher. She contacted a second cousin of hers who dabbled in Thanjavur paintings and sought her help. This cousin recommended my Master, who was then a first-year student at the College of Fine Arts at the University of Madras.
I remember feeling very excited when my mother announced that a drawing master was coming that evening to give me art lessons. What I remember most about that day is scrambling around to change out of my school uniform and into my best outfit before he arrived. His arrival was somewhat anti-climatic for me. He was a really young man, only 9 years older than me. On the first day, we worked on a pencil drawing of a bowl of fruit (still life). He taught me to look for the light source, notice the shadows, and shade accordingly.
After some months/years(?), my excitement waned into a rebellious disinterest. I was a teenager with a litany of petty complaints about the class. The lessons were too long I said, and they are always scheduled on Sunday mornings and make me miss my favorite tv shows. I complained that I couldn’t have a single weekend to myself. It didn’t help that some of my relatives constantly compared my achievements in art to my cousins’ steady progress in playing the violin. I was also irritated that my master always picked watercolors when we painted. I kept wanting to try other media but it felt like he was always postponing that. I cannot remember if I whined about these complaints to him, but I did rant to my mother. What I disliked most was my mother making me fall at his feet and seek his blessings every once in a while on special occasions. My mother assured me that this worship of the Guru (teacher) was standard practice in the Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam circles. In my mind, it just didn’t equate. He was so young, I was his first student and teaching didn’t come naturally to him. He was an awkward teacher and I was an immature teenager. We would argue like we were equals about everything from art to religion. I found it hard to elevate him to that pedestal.The frequency of lessons slowly decreased as I finished school and college. The last time I saw Master was before I went to Australia for graduate studies.
When I was in high school, everyone knew that I was an artist. Many admired and encouraged my art. But when I went to college I never shared my art with anyone. I doubt that any of my college mates even know that I can draw and paint with some prowess. During my 20s, I hated every piece of art that I produced. I was my severest critic. I was convinced that I had no talent and I stopped drawing and painting. I had several arguments with my mother about her “forcing” art on me. I told her that I had no real talent and that she only found my art attractive because she was my mother. When she chided me for not cherishing my teacher, I responded saying that teachers should not be blindly worshipped; they needed to earn that kind of respect. The same relatives that compared my art skills to others’ music skills told me that I had wasted my parent’s money and I was wasting a talent that was divinely bestowed upon me. Eventually, my mother stopped talking to me about my art. I think she felt that she had failed in her goal of training me in some kind of hobby that would give me pleasure.
However, a few years later, I noticed that I doodled and sketched whenever I was stressed. I then realized that my mother had succeeded in her goal after all. Those cousins of mine who used to play the violin and the veena had moved on and didn’t even own those instruments anymore. But, I was still drawing. Pencil drawing is my first love and it’s something I do to relax. As I started drawing again, I started remembering the things that my master had taught me so many years ago. I heard his instructions in my mind. “Where is the light coming from? Where will the shadows be?”.It took me several more years to venture into painting. But when I did, I worked with acrylics and avoided watercolors like the plague. However, I was intrigued every time I read or heard that watercolor is a harder technique to master than other media. In my mind, it was always this boring thing that I had done so many times. As I wondered about why Master made me do watercolors all the time, I began to revisit my memories of those art lessons. For the first time, I was viewing them through the eyes of an adult. I realized that the emotional baggage that I carried about art was something that I had created myself. Neither my master nor my mother was responsible for it. I understood that my behavior during those times was so silly and childish and I was ashamed of it. I berated myself for the things I had done and said, especially to my mother. Earlier this year I searched for my master on Facebook. I wanted to know where he was and what he was doing. I wanted to “look” at him also through my adult eyes. I found out that he was now a Professor at the College of Fine Arts in Kumbakonam.
Every time I visit India, I go on a pilgrimage to the Oppiliappan temple in Kumbakonam. When I purchased my train tickets for the trip this July, I laughingly told my mother that Master lived in Kumbakonam and wouldn’t it be weird to run into him after all these years? She said that we could go and meet him if I wanted. I thought about it and dismissed it. We arrived in Kumbakonam and set out with a list of temples we wanted to visit. On our way to the last temple for the day, we passed the College of Fine Arts. By the time we went to the temple and started back, I had made up my mind. I wanted to meet him. I felt that meeting him again would finally help put all my feelings at rest, especially the shame that I felt. We pulled into the college and I walked up to the watchman and enquired if he was there. The man nodded and directed me upstairs. I walked up the stairs very nervously and looked into each classroom as I passed. Finally, we arrived at the department of painting. I walked into a classroom with a transparent cubicle at the back that served as an office. Master was sitting at the desk talking to someone. He looked exactly the same, except his jet black hair was snow white now.
I knocked and walked in and said “Master…”. Recognizing me instantly, his face lit up with a smile and he stood up to welcome us all in. I watched in fascination as he talked to my mother and enquired after my father and brother. Then he turned to me and said, “You know the weirdest thing. I was just thinking about you this morning and I haven’t thought about you in years! I wondered what you were doing. All I know was that you went to Australia for your post-graduate studies.” He then called his daughter into the office and introduced her to us. She is now a final year student at the college. He told us that he also has a son who lives elsewhere. When he noticed my daughter he grinned and said that even if he hadn’t recognized me he would have realized who I was after she saw her, because she looks exactly like me when he first came to teach me. Over the next hour, he took us on a tour of the college and proudly introduced me to everyone as his first student. My daughter was thrilled to look at all the student’s paintings and I was surprised that there wasn’t a single watercolor in sight. It was a surreal experience meeting his current students. I saw him interact with them and realized he also had matured… as a teacher. I could sense that his students not only respected him deeply but loved him as well.
He insisted on us visiting his home which was a stone’s throw away. We went to his house and met his warm and wonderful wife. As we sipped the tea, he asked what I had been up to and about my husband. Then he said, he was going to make a piece of art as a gift for my husband. He took some plain and heavy cardstock and began etching my daughter’s profile on it. As he worked we talked about my art. He remembered some of the pieces we did and mentioned one as his favorite. For the life of me, I could not recall that painting. He said it was a watercolor. I thought “of course it was” and I asked him if he changed his specialty from watercolor to different media. He looked at me in confusion and said no; he teaches all types of painting.
“Oh, I thought you loved watercolor because you always wanted to work with it.” He said. “Ah. That was only because watercolor is a fast medium. Our classes were only a couple of hours every week and I wanted you to have a complete painting done in that time. I wanted to make sure that you had a sense of satisfaction and not get bored. If we had worked with oil paints we would have waited for each layer to dry and that would take weeks. I realized what a simple and logical explanation it was and marveled that the prejudice in my mind had prevented me from realizing that.
He did an etch of both my children, my mother, and me using his nail on the cardstock. It was awesome to see him work. He asked me how often I drew or painted these days. I told him quite frequently especially when I am stressed. He smiled and said “I am so happy to hear that you stuck with it. You were really good you know. Especially considering how young you were then.” I realized that those were the words I had been waiting for to believe in myself and my art. I have no memory of him saying something like that to me before.
As we readied to leave, I requested that he stand so that I may fall at his feet and seek his blessings. This time my mother was not prompting me. I did it with all my heart. In my mind, I sought not only his blessings but also his forgiveness for my disrespect all those years ago. He presented me with a saree and extracted a promise to visit him for a meal when I was in Kumbakonam again. He mentioned for the hundredth time that he was so happy to see me after all these years. I went back to Chennai the next day and painted my first watercolor in decades. I could hear him in my mind again as I mixed the colors and shook off the excess water before painting.
My only regret now is that I still can’t remember which painting was his favorite.
“To be old and wise, one first has to be young and stupid” – Anon