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Pondy blues

32 artists from nine countries holed up at a camp. How did they react to the camp’s theme, Puducherry Blue?, Amitava Sanyal writes.

art and culture Updated: Mar 20, 2010 22:10 IST
Amitava Sanyal

I ’m following the Dalmatian called Pongo,” said Alakesh Ghosh, referring to one of the four friendly dogs that run around on the 30-acre campus of Dune Eco Village outside Puducherry. “He chewed up my Japanese brush. I’m hoping he will at least do a watercolour for me. Will it be in blue?”

As one of the 32 artists who stayed at the resort as guests of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) for a week in early March, Ghosh was all too aware of the theme of the camp — Puducherry Blue. Was he going to react to it? “Where’s the blue here?” he said mockingly, sitting less than a hundred metres from the Bay of Bengal. “I come from the land of 101 rivers,” said the painter from Jamalpur, Bangladesh. “Blue is always inside me, at the back.”

A literal reaction to the theme was also far from what Sanjeev Bhargava, founder of NGO Seher, had hoped to evoke when he set about organising the camp. In 2007 he had organised ‘Jaisalmer Yellow’, another camp in which 25 artists had produced 25 canvases that are now touring Dhaka. That theme was “accidental”. But ‘blue’ had been on Bhargava’s mind for long: “In the early 1980s, sitting in Bhopal’s Bharat Bhavan, I once heard (classical singer) Kumar Gandharva tell (painter) J. Swaminathan that he had noticed some 54 shades of blue in the sea.”

In awe of that observation ever since, Bhargava retro-fitted it into a theme when ICCR director-general Virendra Gupta evinced interest in spreading India’s ‘soft power’ in the neighbourhood. Puducherry was chosen when designer Sumant Jayakrishnan, who advises Seher on all its events, recommended the setting of the sprawling resort. Artists from the eight member-nations of the South Asian Association for Regional Coorperation and Myanmar were chosen by Bhargava and team. And ‘Puducherry Blue’ came to life.

To the artists, however, the camp and its theme represented varying things.

Prabhakar Kolte, an abstractionist who taught at Mumbai’s J.J. School of Arts for 22 years, said, “To me, painting is all about light. My mentor Shankar Palsikar used to say colours represent moods and notes of sound... It could mean many things to many others.”

Kolte’s roommate at the camp and his one-time student, the Myanmar-born John Tun Sein, said, “A camp is a coming together of people in a particular time. Painting is a never-ending journey — what I did here is a continuation of what I’m doing as a painter.”

The camp posed a different challenge to Vanita Gupta, a Mumbai-based abstractionist who has been working only with black for seven years. “To me, it was daunting at first to come out of my studio and paint in close company of other artists because my work depends on the first stroke I make — and that stroke may not work at times.”

The conversation over the concept of a colour and of abstraction reached a crescendo one evening after a spell-binding recital of Carnatic classical music by T.M. Krishna. “At the height of a performance, I can see a raag in shapes and colours, though I cannot relate it to anyone else,” said the vocalist. Kolte claimed he could hear notes in the colours on a canvas.

Another evening, while everyone was taking in the changing colours of the Bay of Bengal at sundown, Bhargava came up rushing. “Look at that,” he gushed, pointing at the sight of Latifa Meeran from Afghanistan and Karma Zangmo from Bhutan holding each other while gazing into the blue. “For me, that’s what the camp is all about.”