What do hockey Olympian Zafar Iqbal, Odissi exponent Madhvi Mudgal, theatre veteran MK Raina and well-known artist Jatin Das have in common?
Well. In today’s search for quick fame and the fast buck, their arts have few takers. Why hockey, when there’s cricket? Why Odissi, when there is salsa or jazz or Kathak? Why theatre, when there are films and TV soaps? And why brush and knife when you can hang a rotten pair of socks in the middle of a gallery and call it “art”?
But though these disciplines are not the first thing on the minds of most young people making a start in life, there are still people who have the passion and the talent for an art, a sport, a way of life, and they will do anything to fulfill that zeal.
Meet four veterans in disciplines that are not as ‘popular’ as others – people who have seen or been great gurus – and see what makes them different from four young people who are finding their feet in the same disciplines.Theatre: Act in humility
Sometimes, gurus use a thorn to prick a thorn. And in a democratic art like theatre, there is really no room for recalcitrance. In fact, there are many lessons in humility, especially when the teacher is world-renowned playwright, actor and theatrical father figure, Ebrahim Alkazi.
So when a mildly rebellious MK Raina left Kashmir to study at the National School of Drama (NSD) in the late 1960s, he stumbled upon serendipitous lessons that usually came from things he could really make no sense of.
Today, when Raina talks of Alkazi, he sounds like a mischievous 20-something, his eyes moist with nostalgia and affection for his guru.
“One day, during the first year of my course at NSD, I saw fellow students loading bricks and mud on their heads. I found this idea of labour very strange,” recalls Raina. “Someone whispered that Alkazi Sahab is helping to build the Meghdoot theatre. The next moment we saw Alkazi walk in with bricks on his head. Such madness in his commitment to work and learning would often baffle me. The theatre was inaugurated with the staging of Godaan.”
Teachers don’t often fling away disappointing project work by students. But Alkazi had no qualms about doing so. And so Raina found himself learning lessons that stuck with him for life.
“He flung my project on costume design out of the window and it landed three floors down,” says Raina. “I picked it up angrily and returned to his room. ‘Why did you throw it out?’ I asked. He simply pointed at the material I had used to cover the project file. I understood my mistake. Made the corrections, revised my work, and covered it properly. A few days later, he smiled at me.”
Actor Viren Basoya did not go to any drama school. After a few modelling and acting assignments for TV, he arrived at well-known theatre director Arvind Gaur’s theatre workshop four years ago.
“I was confused and fed up,” says Basoya. “Modelling wasn’t satisfying. One day, I deleted all the modelling contacts from my phone and joined Asmita, Gaur’s group.”
Today, Basoya has earned a few important roles in Asmita’s productions, such as Ambedkar aur Gandhi, Ramkali and Unsuni. He swears by the “interactive method” in Gaur’s training.
“I will continue acting,” he says. “Direction is about loads of work. Sir (Gaur) has at times assigned me the duty of conducting the group. It’s a lot of work really.”
An acting school would have trained him to handle the workload, but here, Basoya is learning on the job.
Odissi: Bound by tradition
Dancing in front of mirrors can sometimes reveal more than mere mistakes and corrections. Especially for a guru and disciple who are bound with biological ties. When Odissi exponent Madhvi Mudgal and disciple Arushi Mudgal face the mirrors for a morning rehearsal that kicks off another day under the guru-shishya parampara, their reflections symbolise the duality of a sturdy relationship – that of the teacher and the taught, and a contiguous one of an aunt and niece.
Though the Mudgals, who come from an illustrious family of musicians, do not really like highlighting this, it’s a fact that Indian classical performing arts do come more generously to a performer if she or he has art in his genes.
“I have never given her individual lessons and the other disciples are aware of that,” says Madhvi Mudgal.
The disciple still blushes when asked about her aunt. “Conversations relating to art, dance and literature extend from bus journeys on performance tours to the dining table at home,” says Arushi. “She sometimes comes across as a beautifully clever guru. During a rehearsal when she has her back towards us, she knows which disciple is about to make a mistake. The knack is magical. She turns to find the disciple faltering exactly where she had expected her to falter. She has her own sweet ways of correcting us.”
Arushi has the luxury of seeking her guru in the same city. But in the 1970s, Madhvi Mudgal had to travel to Cuttack for lessons from the great Odissi pedagogue, the late Kelucharan Mohapatra.
“I would visit him depending on the time he had for imparting lessons,” she says. “I would stay at his place for a few months or even a couple of weeks under the true guru-shishya parampara. What the guru gives you is not just training in dance. It’s a complete training, it’s holistic. Like bringing up a child.”
According to Madhvi Mudgal, the ‘guru-shishya bond’ remains intact even in these modern times. But she accepts the fact that young artistes have many things on their minds and have time limitations that her seniors never had.
“Guruji was not an early riser. He would usually be up, choreographing a piece, until 3 am,” she says. “We were given inputs in aspects related to nature, observation, literature and poetry. Guruji was very clear on what and how he was going to teach. We use so many fancy words today while teaching. He would not require all that. His exposure to theatre, percussion and Pattachitra – the traditional folk art of Orissa – made him exceptionally articulate. He knew about temple architecture and had built his house in Cuttack brick by brick.”
Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra believed that the “only way to learn is to teach.” In the ’80s, he asked Mudgal to start teaching other disciples. Recently, at an Odissi workshop in Manchester, Arushi was asked by her guru to teach a group.
“It was interesting to realise that I was teaching,” says Arushi. “I was like, ‘where is all this coming from in me?’” A look in the mirrors may offer an answer.
Visual Arts: Disciple dry
Few artists talk with the fervour, passion and patience of a musician. Jatin Das is one of them. He celebrates disinterest in the things most sought after – pompously; expresses disdain – spiritedly; and expresses love for indigenous things, values and concepts – most naturally.
“Young artists today have little interest in Indian art and craft,” he says. “And thanks to the commoditisation of art and the spurt of new galleries, art students are more willing to sell their works than to learn. For people like me, it is difficult to find students. In the past, I have asked students to come and help me. ‘How much will you pay?’ they ask.”
A mention of the crumbling values in art training gets Das worked up and restless. “Today, the great institution called ‘home’ is eroded,” he says. “When I was a child, my eldest brother would get me colours and paper. I would save them for years and use them passionately. My eldest brother’s friend was studying at Shantiniketan. During his summer holidays in Orissa, he would teach me how to use watercolours. My mother and sister would listen to classical music. There were visionaries like my first teacher in Mayurbhanj who knew music and visual art. He could sing, use percussion instruments, he would observe nature. All these people helped me see and learn things graphically.”
Das feels there is a dearth of values, skills and creative alacrity among the young. “They are aping the West. Around 12 years ago, a few young painters who are now famous, had wanted to train under me. They never came back. They can digitally tweak their work and do things like video installations. Who would want to spend time learning lines and strokes?
“During my days at Mumbai’s Sir JJ School of Art, one invitation from Professor SB Palsikar would see me excitedly announcing to friends ‘Arre, Palsikar Sahab ne studio mein bulaaya hai.’ Music and dance maestros still have disciples who share living space with their gurus. We artists don’t have any disciples. Why?”
Young artist Nidhi Khurana’s academic journey in visual art extends from Welham Girls’ High School in Dehradun, to the “notorious” department of Sculpture at MS School of Art, Baroda, and the interactive environs of School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU.
A few exhibitions old at 30, she has a mind of her own and betrays immense clarity on professional priorities. “I wonder why installation art gets flak from senior masters. I will not be happy doing two-dimensional work for my entire life. I will continue to experiment with different media. There is really nothing wrong in doing video installations.
“Interestingly, the theoretical course at JNU has helped me understand ‘art’ better. I have been to an arts college where teachers were not physically present to help us nurture our skills. Young artists like me have learned to balance the shortcomings in training with hard work. No one can dismiss that.”
Would she hesitate to carry a tray of tea mugs around for her guru’s guests if she had a guru? “Yes,” says Khurana. “Such gestures really lie outside an art studio. I have done various odd jobs related to workshops, and interactive initiatives for children with prominent galleries. The experience has been great. But recently I tried doing administrative work for a prominent artist. But my ego was poking me.”
Could these ego hassles exist because she’s already shown her work at galleries? “Yes,” she smiles. “I think so.”
Hockey: True to the turf
The film Chak De India was inspired by hockey veteran Mir Ranjan Negi’s failure as a goalkeeper in the 1982 Asian Games and presents a Muslim as its protagonist.
In reality, the Indian squad at that time did have a Muslim as its captain – Zafar Iqbal, a member of the gold medal-winning Olympic squad of 1980. His story too should inspire film scripts. He would sneak out of the house with shoes and a hockey stick, all to avoid a not-very-encouraging academician father.
“Today, players can’t relate to the madness hockey was about during our times,” says Iqbal. “Youngsters these days are tougher, they keep employment options in mind. My contemporaries and I never thought of jobs at the peak of our careers. Today young players think from the head, not heart.”
For Ranjit Singh, a promising trainee from the Sonepat-based PNB Hockey Academy and a future India team probable, employment options are a concern. “But they’re not a priority yet,” he says. “The training keeps me really occupied. There is a lot to be worked on. My coach has suggested I improve on my fitness, flexibility and speed.”
Singh’s friends in his hometown, Amritsar, are preparing to go where the money is. But his coach is pinning his hopes on him. Does that make him nervous? “No. The coach’s word is the last word. Also, our generation has things like video footage to help us. I wonder how seniors managed without such facilities.”