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Singing The Tune Without The Words

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By: Ganesh Saili
I guess you could say it began with the phone, or the image that appeared on the screen – a snowclad mountain with a frieze of rhododendrons – but not the ones that stain the hillsides crimson in spring; these are the rare ones, the white blossoms that festoon the ground-hugging chimul bushes. It had been sent to me by a friend, whose name I’ll tell you later.

‘Who is the painter?’ He wondered, asking: ‘Was he or she from these parts? An art teacher perhaps? Please could you ask around from old art teachers or retired principals. It has waited eighty years.’

He had already done the rounds of people living in the Eastern Himalaya in far flung places like Sikkim, Bhutan, Darjeeling and Kalimpong but had drawn a blank.

Impulsively, I sent a photo of the painting to another friend in Dehradun. Once again, I’m not mentioning his name, not just yet. ‘Never heard of this painter G.S. Gana or Gama!’ he told me. ‘Provincial Art School Teacher. Definitely not good enough to have come out of Calcutta.’ Adding almost as an afterthought: ‘I wouldn’t hold my breath, if I were you. This is probably a souvenir shop painting!’

So, regretfully, I put it aside. Now whenever I get writer’s block, the petite Ambika Singh with her gentle manner, unfailingly comes to my rescue. This time she leads me to the works of Marianne North, who had visited Mussoorie in 1879, and had left us a brilliant image of those ‘angry fangs of Banderpoonch’ snarling at the sky.

‘Look at those palanquin bearers to the left edge of frame and the dog roses doing their spring time ballet among rhododendrons at the other end,’ Ambika points out.

Marianne spent two years in India and had over eight hundred paintings with her at the end of her travels. Her diary reveals a woman with a mind of her own, who preferred to work unaided to capture the essence of the places she visited. Of course she met politicians, military officers, doctors, judges and the like, but continued to paint what caught her fancy.

After meeting Maharaja Mangal Singh of Alwar she had travelled through that desert kingdom a hundred and fifty years ago, where she found entire streets lined with hunting cheetahs and lynxes. Those ferocious beasts were brought out blindfolded to be let loose within sight of the quarry, from where they crept up and sprang upon the quarry, holding them till the hunter came up. So intent were the cheetahs on their grim task that afterwards they were easily blindfolded and led away. She talks with awe of ‘all those wild beasts chained to trestle-beds in front of the houses down the street, their keepers sitting or sleeping behind them, and little children, peacocks, cocks and hens, wandering among them without the slightest fear.’

Briefly Marianne found her own sunshine in an old Palace in Amritsar with a garden full of bougainvillea and scarlet and orange begonias. For a moment she even mulled on what it would have been like to restore the place to its old glory and to settle there. But she snapped back to reality with: ‘but probably the white ants would have already loosened all the nails, and the roof would more likely than not come tumbling down before long.’

Elsewhere she recalls ducking behind a rock to avoid a group of the nobility out hunting knowing full well that ‘such grandees have a habit of demanding anything they have a fancy for and have no idea of being refused, while I had no idea of giving away the sketch I had come so far to make.’

In closing, I must reveal, as I promised, that I’m in debt for the picture of the clump of white flowers against a snow-capped mountain to my neighbour, actor Victor Banerjee. For robust advice, I turn to the Sherlock Holmes of Art Collectors, Rahul Kohli. And last, but in no way least, a huge ‘thank you’ to my school mate, Sujit Liddle’s generosity with his editorial skills.

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.