Roundabout: Malkit’s canvas, village and beyond
If ever the newspaper office sent me on a Punjab gerhi with vehicle and all, I would make a detour and go to Rode-Landey for the extra emotive content to the story. I felt at home there perhaps because Malkit would never tire of talking about it and willy-nilly it found its way on his canvases.columns Updated: Jan 21, 2018 13:58 IST
The only villages I knew of well in east Punjab, having lost the villages of my foremothers and forefathers in west Punjab to the ‘great’ divide of 1947, were the twin hamlets of Rode-Landey beyond Moga. This is so not because prominent Khalistani leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who loomed large on the Punjab canvas in the 1970s and 1980s, belonged to Rode. It is so because city-based painter Malkit Singh, whom we lost on Friday, belonged to it.
If ever the newspaper office sent me on a Punjab gerhi with vehicle and all, I would make a detour and go to Rode-Landey for the extra emotive content to the story. I felt at home there perhaps because Malkit would never tire of talking about it and willy-nilly it found its way on his canvases. The painter had a treasure of stories from this remote area, some which he had witnessed himself and some which had come down to him from the elders in the celebrated oral tradition of the land.
One of his fond stories was when he spotted a pretty little girl with two plats in a bullock cart when he was at the boundaries of the village with his mother, a grand woman named Gurdial Kaur . Once home, he confided to his mother, “Ma I will marry the two-plated girl.” Those were times when Jat girls in those villages did not braid their hair in two plats so the mother would wisely said, “No you will have to marry a girl with one plat.” Malkit insisted and repeated, “No, I will marry the one with two plats.” ‘One’ teased the mother and ‘Two’ wept the son. This was a favourite joke between the mother and son always.
I visited his village so many times and there would be someone to take me around, feed me and help me do the story I had in mind and all because of the one phone call he had made home. Malkit had built re-built his village home with all the city trappings and it resembled a town bungalow. Once I had gone there to interview Nachhatar Singh Rode, assassin of Punjab Kesri newspaper’s owner Lala Jagat Narain, after he had returned to his village completing his life imprisonment term. I got late and it was almost dusky when I was leaving Landey. Gurdial Kaur, who had touches of dementia then, cried out in concern: “Go home it is getting dark. Don’t stay out so late”.
The mother-son relationship was a strong one and he had imaged her often but the two fine paintings of her I recall are one of her face in the PGI corridors when she fell ill and one when she was young and taking out a ‘Jago’ in the village as her son remembered her tall and stately wearing a ghaghra. The fields were painted over and again, sometimes lush green and sometimes sad during the decade and a half of trouble in Punjab the scarecrow was placed in the middle of the fields on a throne. In 2004, Malkit was a part of a delegation to Pakistan and that trip rejuvenated him and he started painting the farmer with frisky goats as a memory of his childhood and also the goats he saw around Baba Bulleh Shah’s mazaar in Kasoor.
I wonder if I will ever go to Rode-Landey again but Saturday evening I got a call from his nephew Amandeep who assured me that he would scatter some of his dear Mama’s ashes in the fields that were so dear to him. This was an unsaid last wish as Malkit lamented in an interview, “I have scattered the ashes of my relatives and friends in the fields, but I wonder if anyone will scatter mine?”