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A MATTER OF PERFECTION

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  By: Ganesh Saili

‘Capt. Young’s house – Mullingar – doesn’t seem to be in the right place on your Tassin Map!’ asks the gentle Rahul Kohli, art collector, scholar and historian, presently the Chairperson of Doon School Old Boy’s Association.

This passion for perfection bubbled to the surface on our very first meeting, after he had, on a hunch, picked up an old notebook with doodles and squiggles done in pencil at an antiquarian’s in London. Not one to dilly-dally, he hit the nail squarely on the head, fishing from his jhola a silk wrapped package containing the notebook. ‘What can you make of these?’ he asked.
Clean bowled, stumped, run out and all three together, I looked like a batsman dismissed by the very first ball of the day. What on earth was this? Granted there was a bush; granted there was a tree-stump and granted there was an oak tree but bunched together they didn’t total tea-bags.

Patience! My ‘Doctor-Livingstone-I-presume’ moment arrived in the nick of time, as in desperation, I fished out an old stone-cut Tassin map of 1831 – the first map of our hill station. Mercifully, on cue, things fell into place. Like Alice in Wonderland, we surfaced in the pre-survey days, in times when army officers learnt the rudiments of map making. You could say Lieutenant Fisher had a steady hand. With mathematical precision and a steady hand he had made a sketch of a little corner of the hills.

There we were, two of us, grey-heads: he with a pony-tail trailing down to his waist and I, as bald as a billiard ball, sitting in the yard yoking together precious relics of our two-hundred-year old history. More lay in store. He nudged me to the plant water-colours of Thakur Ganga Singh – a young lad, all of sixteen years old, who left his tiny village of Kakhola, in Tehri-Garhwal, to walk through the gates of Dehradun’s Chandbagh (later the Forest Research Institute) in 1911. Twenty years later, he was at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, fine tuning his art.

Initially, he followed a tradition put in place by the Moghul Jahangir, who visiting Kashmir in springtime, commissioned a botanical study, whereby artists leant heavily upon accuracy in botanical representation, as flower ornamentation took centre stage in architecture, carpets, textiles and in Indian miniatures including book calligraphy.

Strongly Influenced by the paintings of the gifted nineteenth century botanist Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, Ganga Singh went on to carve a niche for himself. 1942 saw him join the staff of Maharajah Yadhavindra Singh of Patiala, painting the collected flora in over four hundred watercolours over the next two decades. Unfortunately, he passed away in 1971, and the Maharaja, a year later and the book remained incomplete. Its heartening to know that his son, Amarinder Singh is completing the work for publication in the foreseeable future.

Rahul tells me: ‘Some ten or fifteen years ago, a large quantity of this work found its way to Mallett the art dealer in London.’

At the time of writing, an unrelated water-colour of Mussoorie surfaces in the public domain. Of course it’s not some grandmaster’s work. It’s humbler. Perhaps the dreamy offspring of a Sunday artist out on a picnic wanting to leave a gift for posterity.
‘Park Estate?’ I venture.

‘Can’t be! Not Everest’s home, by a stretch. Doesn’t match satellite maps!’ he tells me. ‘May I get back to you?’

And he does. The painting has been done from the eastern end of station, over-looking the valley of the Doon, in the waning years of the nineteenth century.

And that brings me back to his original query on that stone-cut Tassin Map. How I wish I could tell him that if, (as legend has it) Captain Young’s ghost returned to Mullingar’s bulbous slum today, our first Commandant of the Landour Convalescent Depot, would throw an apoplectic fit and forget his ghostly parade. There is no space between fifty cars squeezed bumper to fender, cheek to jowl. There is not a hope in hell for a mouse to squeak through.

Rahul! Let us both agree, this time around, it’s safer to let sleeping ghosts lie.

(Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide.)