Drawn to remember: an exhibition by an Indian painter

THE PAINTER MAHESH BALIGA was born in the south Indian state of Karnataka in 1982. He studied painting at The Chamarajendra Academy of Visual Arts (CAVA) in Mysore, and then received a postgraduate qualification at the prestigious Faculty of Fine Arts, MSU, in Baroda (Vadodara in Gujarat). He has taught at various art schools in India and exhibited in several countries including India. Currently, he lives and works in Baroda. Between the 12th of April 2022 and the 28th of May 2022, some of his works are being exhibited in a solo exhibition, “Drawn to Remember”, at the David Zwirner Gallery in Grafton Street (in London’s West End).

The paintings on display were created using casein tempera. This kind of paint has a glue-like consistency, but it can be thinned with water. According to Wikipedia, artists like this kind of paint because:

“… unlike gouache, it dries to an even consistency, making it ideal for murals. Also, it can visually resemble oil painting more than most other water-based paints …”

At first glance, it is difficult to discern whether the Baliga’s paintings on display at Zwirner’s resemble water colours or oil paintings; some of them seem to look halfway between the two mediums. All of them, except one, are quite small canvases and without exception they are all attractive. The subject matter depicted in the works is varied, from studies of plants and animals to everyday scenes (often with depictions of Indian life) to the slightly unusual. An example of the latter is in the only large canvas of the show in which there is an image of a man with sticky plasters over his left eye. Another odd subject shows a man with flowers growing out of his shirt. This is appropriately named “Flowering Self”.

The small size of most of the paintings, which the artist described as ‘lap-sized’, has a reason. Many of them were executed on the journeys the artist made when commuting to and from Surat (in the south of Gujarat), where he held a teaching position for a while. Though they are not large paintings, each one of them provides a window on the artist’s experiences and and his take on them. Although the paintings are far from mundane, they are not over-dramatic or excessively visually challenging. The exhibition is well worth seeing.  I would be happy to hang any one of the works I saw at his exhibition on my walls at home.

Letting off gas

THIS IS AN UNSAVOURY subject. So, you have been warned.

On our first visit to Baroda (Vadodara) in the western Indian state of Gujarat a few years ago, I noticed several tall cast-iron structures resembling lamp posts, except that they were topped with curious objects. Each of these tall streetside poles is topped with spheres, each with four cylindrical projections. Beneath each sphere, there is an arrow. I was puzzled by these objects. So, I posted pictures on Facebook and asked if any of my friends knew what purpose these things serve or used to serve. I received several ingenious suggestions, none of which turned out to be correct.

Baroda (Vadodara)

Having seen these items in Baroda (and also in Bombay and Ahmedabad), I began noticing similar structures in London. None of the examples in London are topped with the sphere and arrow, but in other respects they are not particularly different from those I saw in India. Eventually, I learned that they are all examples of ‘stink pipes’. There are many fine specimens, disused I believe, dotted around London. Recently, I was reminded of those I saw in India when I saw a couple near Chiswick Mall in west London.

It was not until after about 1858 that sewage began being channelled through enclosed sewers in London, an improvement instigated by London Metropolitan Board of Work’s Chief Engineer Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891). Sewage is waste matter, which tends to decompose. The products of decomposition include noxious gases such as for example hydrogen sulphide, carbon monoxide, ammonia, and methane. Some of them are highly inflammable and all of them increase in pressure as the sewage flows through the sewers. The stink pipes serve(d) as vents through which the gasses building up could escape from the sewers. They tend to be tall so that the gases blow off high above ground level where there are more likely to be breezes that can disperse the gases. Without adequate venting, the gaseous vapours can become dangerously explosive. Returning to Baroda, where the stink pipes are topped with spheres. The gases escape through the conical projections and, I have learned, the arrows indicate the direction of the sewer running beneath them and which way the sewage is flowing.

From revolutionary to saint

On Sunday morning it was Republic Day, the 26th January 2020. The streets in Baroda were quite. Several of the few vehicles we saw carried Indian national flags that fluttered proudly as they sped past us.

It was also quieter than usual at the Sri Aurobindo Nivas, the home where Sri Aurobindo lived while he was an official in the government of the princely state of Baroda and both professor and vice chancellor of what is now Baroda University. Aurobindo lived with his wife, Mrinalini in this house donated by the Gaekwad. After Baroda, Aurobindo and his wife moved to Calcutta. Later, he moved to the French colony of Pondicherry. After he arrived there, his wife followed him but during the journey to join him, she died suddenly of an infection (https://www.boloji.com/articles/13683/mrinalini-sri-aurobindos-forgotten-wife). I have written a bit about Aurobindo in Baroda in my book “Travels through Gujarat, Daman, and Diu” (published in India by pothi.com as “Gujarat Unwrapped). Here is what I wrote:

“Today, Sri Aurobindo is associated with ‘peace and love’ by many people, especially the crowds of Europeans who seek spiritual solace at his ashram in Pondicherry. While Aurobindo was working as a teacher in Baroda in the early 20th century, he was involved in Indian independence movements. Although he espoused peaceful methods, he was not averse to the use of violence. Jyotirmaya Sharma wrote in his book, Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism, wrote: “It was at Baroda that Aurobindo took the first decisive steps into political life … Aurobindo clearly believed in the efficacy of violent revolution and worked towards organizing secret revolutionary activity as a preparatory stage for open revolt and insurrection…” In a biography, Sri Aurobindo for All Ages, its author Nirodbaran, who worked in close contact with the great man for twelve years, wrote: “When we asked him once how he could even conceive of an armed insurrection against the well-equipped British garrisons, he answered: ‘At that time, warfare and weapons had not become so lethal in their effect. Rifles were the main weapons, machine guns were not so effective. India was disarmed, but with foreign help and proper organisation, the difficulty could be overcome; and in view of the vastness of the country and the smallness of the regular British armies, even guerrilla warfare might be effective…”

After a year’s spell in Alipore prison in connection with his alleged involvement with some politically motivated murders in Bengal, Aurobindo settled in Pondicherry, and from then began espousing a spiritual approach to life. While living in that French colony, he continued to contemplate contemporary Indian issues, including that of the relationship between Hindus and Muslims. In late 1909, Aurobindo wrote: “Our ideal therefore is an Indian Nationalism, largely Hindu in its spirit and traditions, because the Hindu made the land and the people and persists, by the greatness of his past, his civilisation and his culture and his invincible virility, in holding it, but wide enough also to include the Moslem and his culture and traditions and absorb them into itself.” Jyotirmaya Sharma wrote: “Savarkar legitimately claimed paternity for the idea of Hindutva; but Hindutva could lay to an equally formidable patrimony in the thought of Dayananda, Vivekananda, and Aurobindo. What binds these four thinkers together is the systematic marshalling of a Hindu identity in the service of Indian nationalism.” Sharma quotes the following passage, written in 1923, from Aurobindo’s India’s Rebirth (a collection of writings): “It is no use ignoring facts; some day the Hindus may have to fight the Muslims and they must prepare for it. Hindu-Muslim unity should not mean the subjection of the Hindus. Every time the mildness of the Hindus has given way. The best solution would be to allow the Hindus to organize themselves and the Hindu-Muslim unity would take care of itself, it would automatically solve the problem.” And, in 1934, Aurobindo wrote: “As for the Hindu-Muslim affair, I saw no reason why the greatness of India’s past or her spirituality should be thrown into the waste paper basket in order to conciliate the Muslims who would not at all be conciliated by such a stupidity.”

The Sri Aurobindo Nivas, where Aurobindo lived until 1906 while he was an esteemed teacher and state official in Baroda, is a two-storey grand, mainly brick bungalow with European-style wooden window shutters. In 1971, the Government of Gujarat handed it over to Baroda’s Sri Aurobindo Society, which promotes the peaceful aspects of Aurobindo’s teachings and philosophy. The house is surrounded by a well-maintained garden. This contains an outdoor stone shrine, a flat marble table with a bas-relief of a lotus flower in its centre. The lotus was surrounded by a flower arrangement consisting of a circle surrounding a six-pointed star. The star with centrally enclosed lotus is a symbol of Sri Aurobindo, whereas the circle is the symbol of his spiritual partner, the Mother, who settled in Pondicherry in 1920. She was born Mira Alfassa (1878-1973) in Paris, of Turkish and Egyptian Jewish parentage. She became the founder of Aurobindo’s ashram in Pondicherry.

The ground floor of this typical colonial-style bungalow contains offices and a library, which was full of people reading at tables. The upper floor has carpeted rooms decorated with relics and portraits of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. These two people are often depicted in their old age, but here at Aurobindo Nivas we saw a couple of portraits, hung side-by-side, showing both as young people. The rooms on the upper floor are used for silent meditation. People sit cross-legged on the floor and occasionally prostrate themselves, their foreheads touching the floor. Also, they stand up and touch the paintings and photographs of Aurobindo and the Mother in the same way as Hindu worshippers touch idols in temples.

There is a large well-tended lawn behind the bungalow. About twenty-five people were sitting on the grass on rugs, meditating and doing yoga. They were facing a boundary wall on which there is a large outline map of India as it was before Partition in 1947 (including what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh). In the centre of what is now India, there is the circular symbol of the Mother.”

(end of extract).

After spending a pleasant hour in Aurobindo’s former residence, we took refreshments including south Indian filter coffee and dahi vada in the nearby three storey Canara Coffee House (founded 1950). Then we continued our exploration of the Sursagar Lake and looked for picturesque old buildings in the city. Many of the older structures, mostly residential usage, are rich in finely carved wooden decorative features.

By the time we had seen sufficient, the temperature was approaching 30 degrees Celsius – a contrast to the near zero conditions we had encountered earlier on our trip in places like Darjeeling and Mount Abu.

TRAVELS THROUGH GUJARAT DAMAN AND DIU is available from Amazon, lulu.com, and Bookdepository.com

GUJARAT UNWRAPPED , an Indian edition of the above is available from pothi.com (only in India)