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Sunday, December 20, 2009

A superb painter and a gentle soul: Vasudeo Smart

Tushar Bhatt

Cars screamed past and two-wheelers zoomed ahead,mindless of others on the road.Traffic on the road near the modest house called Rupayan in Jay Somnath Society was so mad that one would think it wanted to reach the moon instantly, far ahead of the speed of light.In the midst of this gigantic madding crowd called Surat lived a physically old but mentally young man,Vasudeo Smart,who appeared to be working as furiously to take the tradi-tional Indian painting-in tact,nevertheless-into the future .He had been prolific all his life, documenting ,improving upon and innovat-ing newer symbols in the classical Indian style of painting.Over the past half a century,Vasudeo had done thousands of paint-ings,frescoes,scrolls,line drawing,panoramic colour pieces,mammoth compositions such as Ram Vivah,Independence,that are truly speaking inclusive of hundreds of works which can easily stand independently as works of art and together bring home an impact of magnificence, authentic,artistic and vibrant in every detail.
Born on July 17,1925 in Surat in the household of father Balwan-tram and mother Gulabgauri,Vasudeo was among the tallest Guja-rati artists.In the twilight years of his life,he was back in his home-town Surat, adding a lustre to the cultural life of the diamond city.
Though his home State,Gujarat,appears to have taken Smart for granted,Vasudeo carried on with his brush,his colours and his pur-suit of painting regardless.
It was shortly after 2 p m when many of his age would be in bed ,enjoying a siesta.In the autumn of life Vasudeo seemed to be a man of different genre.He was not only up and about,but alert as well.
As the footfalls approach the door of Rupayan,across the small foreyard which has a karan tree with branches hung with painted pots, a voice called out.In a jiffy,Vasudeo ,with a toothy bespecta-cled face,sporting short,white hair and equally grey bush mous-tache,right hand in a sling,appeared in the door frame.Even before a query was made,he perceived the question and said: "I slipped in the drawing room some two months ago and got a hairline crack in my shoulder.My hand is itching to work and I am hoping to be back at doing what I have always done,painting,in a day or two."
A lifelong art teacher who spent more than a quarter century as reader in Indian painting at the Banaras Hindu University (BHU),he was completely at ease with young and old alike.If total informal-ity,modesty and friendliness were his individual traits,the master could still turn out nattily-dressed for public occasions--complete with a Gandhi cap tiltingly set on his head, as neat and dapper a man as his paintings were.
Vasudeo Smart was a titan among painters in Indian classical style,living away from the limelight of public attention for some years now;yet, he had not sunk into inactivity.His friends say he appeared to be busier than ever,bursting with ideas,seeing oppor-tunities to do paintings. Where ordinary mortals will perceive chaos,noise,milling crowds and drabness, Vasudeo found pat-terns,beauty,texture and colours.A deep and throbbing sense of romance and wonderment at the day-to-day life and an ability to bring it all on into minutely detailed paintings,strong in lines,marvellous in composition and superb in colour selec-tion,were his hallmarks.
He was strongly rooted in Indian traditions of art,thanks to his upbringing and teachings of giants like Jagannath Ahivasi,his men-tor.His fields of specialisation are as vast as his repertoire in San-skrit literature. Innumerable frescoes,murals and line drawings done by him were in collections of various societies and individuals in the country and abroad.A restless man,he also authored several books on arts and paintings.Notable among these is Roop Sam-hita, a collection of 2,000 Indian designs and a book in Guja-rati,Bharatna Bhint Chitro.
Critics have hailed his works as very sensitive,true to life in the smallest detail,with a very strong line drawing,unity of colour and sense of proportions.Said Natu Parikh:"Many of his paintings are an assembly of a hundred of even two hundred works of art.In each detail,he has gone into its aesthetics painstakingly.He was not a man in hurry, rather he was a perfectionist who insisted of getting every little thing right."
His works also display a rare ability to afford a panoramic view,without having to use too much of perspective to tell a viewer what is the central or focal point in the mural.There is a breath-taking scale in his work and still there is a rhythm,as also move-ment that help a viewer easily grasp what is being shown.In a way, it is a very effective story-telling too.
Parikh noted another characteristic of Vasudeo,citing it as a proof of ever-growing process of his art.Vasudeo never tires of bringing out new symbols.He could draw clouds in a variety of ways,trees in so many different styles that one marvels at the grand mind of the man. All this was not work of his fertile imagina-tion; he had really absorbed minute points of subtle difference in each species of tree,or each span of an overcast sky to underline the identity of each cloud,lending it not only elements of art,but an identity of its own.
Not just this,he took his observations very seriously and could,years later, recall the nuances of subtle difference between the clouds or trees or even a water mass he had done in different paintings.A good teacher,Vasudeo Smart had never ceased to learn more to expand his artistic depth and horizon.
Vasudeo's father was a Sanskrit pundit who eked out a living as a Brahmin performing puja and other religious ceremo-nies.Recalling those years,Vasudeo's voice cracks "My mother was a deeply religious person who used to sing melodiously.I still re-member those days of childhood when I and she would be sitting on a swing as the dusk feel.There were no lights,just earthen oil lamps and mother would sing.I loved to listen to her as also the the Sanskrit strotras and shlokas.I used to remember many strotras by heart."
The love for Sanskrit language had been a lifelong pas-sion."There was some element of art as well in our Vaishnav home inasmuch as the various rites of worship of Krishna called for deco-ration.The Vaishnav temples were also having rich traditions in arts,be it in music,literature,or painting.A neighbour,Zinukaka,was a good portrait artist.And so was an inspirationa cousin,Late Bhanu Smart."
Said Smart:" The atmosphere in Surat too made an impact on me. It was then a great city of culture.During the Diwali days,women would compete with each other in doing colourful saathia (rangoli) in front of their homes.Cuitizens would go round the city in the night,looking at the magnificent array of rangolis and appreciating the works of art.
The child Vasudeo,by the time he went to school,had thought of what he wanted to become in life-a painter.He had passed inter exam in drawing while in school only and opted to go to Bombay in 1943 after passing his matriculation to study art,rather than going in for a degree like B.A.The family was monetarily in dire straits.Vasudeo's voice cracks as he remembers those days.: "There was no money.With difficulty my father could send me Rs.ten or so a month. I used to do tuition and some other work in Bombay to make both ends meet.Once my father even wrote to me suggesting I might think of doing a B.A. instead. I wrote back a Sanskrit strotra to the effect that I was determined to do what I thought was best for me." Tears welled up in Smart's eyes,his voice went hoarse and turned into a whisper; " When my father died ,this chit of mine was found in his pocket."
While in Bombay,he had also imbimbed some of the spirit of the Indpendence movement.That probably explains why his chosen dress is that of a nationalist of the freedom struggle days.In 1948,he took a diploma in painting,standing third in order of merit.For two years after 1949,he was a fellow in Sir J.J.School of Arts,after having worked for a year as an art teacher at Sarvajanik Education Society in Surat. In 1951,he came back to work for seven years at Jeevan Bharati in Surat.Between 1958 and 1960,he went to the B.H.U as a scholar sposnored by the Government of India to study in the fine arts section under Mr Ahivasi.Then,he spent a year in Ahmedabad,teaching at the CN college of fine arts.In 1962,he went back to Banaras as lecturer in painting and remained there upto 1985,rising to become a Reader in Painting.
Thanks to Ahivasi,his art mind got focussed on Indian painting and Vasudeo made a study in depth of fresco paintings of different styles and techniques,preparing the identical size paintings of mu-rals found in Ajanata and Bagh caves among other things. In 1954,he copied frescoes at Badsami caves for the Lalit Kala Acad-emy,New Delhi,and went on for documenting in a similar manner murals at Orchha and Datia in Uttar Pradesh.He travelled to many parts of India studying the traditional Indian painting and imbibing the best of it. He had been given innumerable awards and prizes and held many one-man exhibitions in different cities in the coun-try.
Mr Ahivasi laid foundation for the later greater flights in paintings of Vasudeo."He was so meticulous.He would call a pundit on Mon-days in the month of Shravan (the most rainy month) to read Meghdoot of Kalidas,just to bring home to us boys what it was all about.He would ask us to try capture in painting what the poet was saying in words."
The habit stayed with Vasudeo all his life. "For doing a painting on Ram Vivah,I read Ramayana several times. For doing docu-mentation of the magnificent Jain paintings in south Guajrat in re-cent years, I read up everything that was there about Mahavir."
Those were the days of nationalism in the newly independent In-dia."We had paintings being done under western influ-ence,method.We had great exponents in western as well as Ben-gal wash methods.We did portraits,life,landscape,but it was Ahiva-siji who impressed me most in looking for carrying forward the In-dian style of painting. I learnt a lot by going round the country.More than everything else, I learnt to imbibe what was aesthetically su-perb in various styles practised in the north, in the south,everywhere."
He said:"I have nearly 2,000 paintings of different Indian styles. I am toying with an idea to bring out a volume on it, A Study of In-dian Paintings.It is such a rich tradition,you see. I feel a small book can be brought out on the use of circles, squares and triangles alone in our traditions.And,the richness of colours.The Vaishnav padas will tell you a lot about colours and their vividness. There are three main seasons and their colours,and then there are the con-junction periods of these seasons and their colours,the evenings have their own colours,and so do the dawns." The voice became animated a great deal as Vasudeo went on narrating the potential of doing things about Indian style of paintings.
He fondly recalled his association while in Banaras with another Gujarati,and a long time resident of Surat, Pundit Omkarnath Tha-kur."Punditji would snarl at you,when you talk of trying to render the innumerable ragas and raginis into painting.I would join issue with him and tell him,these paintings were doine mostly on the basis of description available in shlokas.You want to paint something about Bhairav raga,then you take the time of morning when it is ren-dered,show a temple of Mahadev etc. For really bringing on to can-vas the true nature of ragas and raginis,one has to be able to transform the rendering itself into painting. I would ask Omkar-nathji,the singers should themsleves pick up the brush and attempt it."
The sense of wonder and romance have been becoming sharper with the passage of time.Age did not seem to affect Vasudeo's sense of visual pleasure and his ability to convert that personal ex-perience of joy into a painting. Some years ago,he was impressed by the vast variety of kites in the Rander bazar,then in the Barhan-puri bazar in Surat."There were hundreds of kites, each one with a different design.We knew a few names of kites such as Ladve-dar,Kagdi,Matki, although the younger generation is beginning to forget about it all.But the richness of design struck me.So I settled down to do a painting in which I included 350 kites, all of different colour combinations and design.If you really want to study design and its impact on one's sense of art,you should look at the kites more carefully." The moot point that he made,and yet did not spell out in so many words,was that there is so much vibrant and colour-ful in life around us only that one can derive ideas from it,if only one cared to observe it, think about it and explore possibilities,with all one's mind,heart and hand.
His own creative process,however,hinged more on his ability to feel,and capture, a central or focal point in doing any paint-ing.Years ago,he was in Nagaur,Rajasthan,when someone told him of a panghat where village women,dressed in colourful at-tire,came to fetch water.The man added that once upon a time,when women did not go out so often,every time a daughter-in-law came to the panghat to bring water,her mother-in-law would make her wear the best she had.That clicked in Vasudeo's mind and led to a lovely painting,with traditional Rajasthani mi-lieu.Again,when he went to the Himalaya,Vasudeo had taken a copy of Kumar Sambhav,just to see if what the poet wrote about different types of clouds was a figment of imagination or what. It turned out to be not fiction,but based on minute observations.
Vasudeo had done a large number of paintings based on Indian classical themses,often derived from Sanskrit classics,and striving to translate into the lines,and colours of what the writer was de-scribing in words.He had a deep knowledge of Sanskrit and thought that had he not become a painter,he would have become a scholar in Sanskrit.His friends assert that he is a pundit in San-skrit,nevertheless.
Vasudeo had just finished documenting the priceless paintings in the jain temples in south Gujarat.Till recently,he used to go every alternate day to Broach and Ankleshwar for this.
He was a rare combination of an erudite scholar,a master painter and an eternal student.Vasudeo Smart was on an endless quest that,with each passing day,appeared to be sharpening his senses of visual presentation.The ability was backed by his child-like innocence,and nurtured by the care his nephew ,Jagdeep,showered on him after the passing away of Vasudeo's wife,Pramila.The only visible gap in the grand master's life is the death of his wife in December,1987,which he tries to cover by working harder.In homage to her memory,Vasudeo brought out an album of paintings, Rasikpriya.Death had separated Rasik and his Priya,but memory was a powerful potion for him.It kept Vasudeo Smart going,and going great. Then in mid-90s he made a quiet exit from the world. In 2009, his nephew Jagdeep who adored him as a blood relation and Guru,too died at the age of 53.

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