In the India of 1972, if you were successful in persuading a bank to part with a few dollars for a trip abroad or for any other purpose, you had scaled Mt Everest in a T-shirt. Bhopal artist Sachida Nagdev managed to get eight dollars from one in Delhi. He had promised to visit a friend in Berlin.
“The trip would become my ‘around the world in eight dollars,” 74-year-old Nagdev told me at his Bhopal home named Swar-Rang, Tone and Colour. His daughter Smita Nagdev is an acclaimed sitar artist.
Berlin became a launching pad of sorts for Nagdev’s grand European adventure. The eight dollars vanished in a few days, but not before he arrived at the cosy home of a friend in the French village of Chamonix, whose northern side is part of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe, where a plane carrying nuclear scientist Homi Bhaba crashed in 1966.
“My friend was very hospitable. I had a comfortable house to live in and I painted as well. During my visit to Paris, I had the opportunity to see the greatest works of Western art in various museums,” Nagdev said. “It was a quite an experience to look at Mona Lisa, chomping moongphali.”
The enterprising French friend organised an exhibition of Nagdev’s paintings in Chamonix, a popular destination for skiers and alpine mountaineers. The 300 francs from the sale of some his works funded his trip to Italy where he spent the next two months, travelling from city to city, hopping from museum to museum, gallery to gallery.
Thriftiness is not Nagdev’s forte. The francs dried up and he returned to India. Though the Europe visit is etched in his mind, he says it doesn’t evoke in him the sensibility of a man on a mission of discovery as does his visit to Kashmir as a 19-year-old in 1959.
Nagdev has visited 60 countries across the world but believes his visit to Kashmir is the most memorable, possibly because it unravelled his two passions, travel and art, which symbiotically continue to nourish each other.
“Kashmir was then every artist’s dream destination. The few rupees I possessed were insufficient to sustain me there. So I went to Dharamsala to try my luck,” he said. An artistically inclined colonel of the army’s Gorkha regiment offered him a deal he couldn’t resist. “He said, ‘Draw paintings of 20 of my men and I’ll pay you Rs 15 for each’.” The paintings of the fiercely brave Gorkhas done and with Rs 300 in his pocket, Nagdev boarded the bus to Kashmir, where he travelled widely, painting and sketching profusely: a Gujjar beauty in Pahalgam, a transport boat on the Jhelum, shrines, landscapes.
The painting of the Gujjar woman is displayed prominently in the spacious living room of his airy home, overlooking a mid-twentieth century gramophone and bundles of folded works of art.
A day before his scheduled departure from the valley, torrential rains led to a flood considered by far the biggest in the place’s history. “I had no money, but the owner of the houseboat where I had been staying assured me I could continue as long as I wanted for free,” Nagdev said.
The immensity of the deluge is depicted in one of the paintings, where three Kashmiri women watch as waters devour a house.
A portrait of the houseboat owner’s blue-eyed nine-year-old daughter named Zoon (moon), finished while the flood subsided, is therefore one of Nagdev’s favourites. The painting has gone missing.
“Five years ago, when I went to a Trivandrum museum where it had been displayed, I couldn’t find it. I enquired from museum officials but they had no idea,” he said. He has a picture of the painting though.
The Kashmir of 1959, as VS Naipaul would write five years later in ‘An Area of Darkness’, looked like a medieval city. The way of life, especially as reflected in the architecture, had a pre-modern charm. When Nagdev returned to Srinagar last year, he could hardly recognise what he had painted half a century ago.
“The Dal Lake now looks like a residential colony and the Boulevard is so crowded with hotels and buildings everywhere,” he said.
Neither could I, a dyed-in-wool Srinagarite, recognise many of the places and buildings in his paintings and sketches. A painting showing a baker woman in traditional Kashmiri headgear and silver jewellery sitting at her shop reminds one of how quickly cultural practices fade under the onslaught of modernity. You can’t find a baker woman, or any other Kashmiri woman, in such attire now, not even at rituals. What about the dresses tourists wear to get photographed like Sharmila Tagore in Kashmir ki Kali? They are fakes.
The HT story in the Variety section of the newspaper on June 15 about the various types of Kashmiri breads, Nagdev said, when he got in touch with me on email, had reminded him of the 1959 trip. Many of his Kashmir sketches and paintings remain permanently folded up. Though the artist had visited the Valley again in the early Sixties to attend a workshop — MF Hussain, who rode “pillion on my cycle when I showed him around Bhopal” was also a participant — he never got the chance to exhibit those Kashmir-inspired works anywhere.
But Kashmir lingers on in his memory. The Gujjar woman in the living room is a constant reminder.