This Article written in memory of Late Sri. Ravindra Sharma (Guruji) of Adilabad Kala Ashram, was published as part of the bi-lingual book "Smriti-Jaagran Ke Harkaare", SIDH, Jeevika, 2012.
What does one write about someone like Guruji Ravindra Sharma? - The question has to be prefixed with why he should be written about and is predicate on who is writing as well. I have had but two long conversations with him in person, one in SIDH, Mussoorie and another at his Kala Ashram in his native town of Adilabad. But my conversation with him, mulling of the ideas he planted in my mind, have not ceased since then. As the opportunity presents to write something on him, I share the persistent buzz he set in motion in my mind – important as this buzz, for me, often defines provides and sustains the meaning of life. I address two areas of buzz where Guruji’s words often recur in my mind screen – aesthetics and inter-dependent social relationships.
Where do I find Guruji’s dialogue coming most pertinently and incessantly these days? Primarily in the way we understand ‘soundarya’ – aesthetics in the Indian context.
Recently we conducted a series of workshops in Tamilnadu for government managers responsible for production and marketing of crafts and artifacts. These were predominantly products with low functional and even lower aesthetic value which they were hoping somehow to sell. While asking them to look at their own products through different prisms, we added one asking “Will you gift this product to your daughter as a token of love?” Many of them took time answering. One of the participants later told me, it “made us think why people would even buy these products.” While we crowd our markets with crafts of all kinds, most of us have lost the sense of what is beautiful, the real nature that is shaped in the hands of a craftsperson into a piece of art, sophisticated not as a material, but as a manifestation of the creative genius that the human mind is capable of. I was in Kala Ashram a month before Diwali and watched Guruji make diyas in his potter’s wheel. A subtle touch here, a dab there, a gentle squeeze. Using simple techniques and human ingenuity he transformed muddy clay into a work of art. He left the diyas to dry in the sunlight, not firing them, but allowing the sunlight to do the rest of the work. Anyone who walked into the ashram got to take whatever diya they wanted. I guess he continues to make them. For me this visual buzz of his work is as important as the aural buzz within me of his words.
I live in a city where living spaces are derivatives of the economical hierarchy within which one is fitted into. The space to live in is negotiated with others within the same level in the hierarchy. The ones who compromise on a particular value can gain in another and the ones who compromise on most can glow in at least one of them. Aesthetics is not the highest in the order of values – usually it is just a cosmetic. Often, looking at the ugliness of the city, I am reminded of Guruji’s statement from one of the several sastras he quotes with such felicity. He once said there is a title for Lord Indra – Purandar that is bestowed on him because he destroyed any town which had a population of over ten lakhs and according to the Indian tradition that is the maximum a town is supposed to grow up to! A delimiter to the idea of a metropolis, where we draw a line stating this far it goes and no more, sounds such an environmentally sound idea to me. Today most Indian ‘development’ experts have hardly a clue as to what is it which needs to be ‘developed’. We don’t have an end-point or a goal post in mind; the goal post is a shifting chimera held in front of us sometimes by the West, sometimes by our own greed. If only we had such rules as to how big a town can grow, it would be so much more energizing, I often think, while engrossed in the daily encounter of life in the metropolis, my aesthetic sense benumbed with the randomly shaped and economically dictated structuring of our living spaces. Dharampalji used to say that a town loses its value when it cannot have people in it walking from one end to another, as relationships are built by people walking around. It is an insight mirroring my own buzzing thoughts as initiated by Guruji. To have a delimiter to growth of a habitat or a town or city seems such a sustainable idea, you wonder why no one has thought about it in a world crazy for ‘sustainable’ development!
‘How come a nation which is rich in such textile tradition can go around wearing plastic?’ is a question a designer friend of mine, Uma Prajapati raises often. But, does the nation know or care for the textile tradition? Who are the carriers of the tradition? How do they represent us and relate to our identities? Where is the pride in these relationships that have not been knocked holes through the modern thinking rooted in reasoning and technology? Often the same questions prevail in agriculture – how do you make a predominantly careless ‘consumer’ care for the farmer? Why are these relationships becoming so distinct and distant?
An antidote is to look at the society and how it is integrated in so many different ways, how people relate to each other, how the customs are born out of the reason for inter-connectedness and as a celebration of it. It is another aspect from Guruji’s discussions that often causes a buzz in my mind. The need for customs, he once explained, was to ensure that the artisanal classes were not deprived of their livelihood. A new pot bought for a ceremony, a new cloth to adorn and bejewel an occasion, were all fine threads that connected the artisan and his economy with that of the rest of the community and society. An artisan or a craftsperson is important to me as she enhances the meaning of a significant moment in my life.
When Guruji explained how the pallu worn by a women was of the same design as the door frame design in the family house, the market mind jumps to the uniqueness of such a venture and how such customization provides them with their own identity, so distinct and yet so real. He also explained the economic calculation of how such sarees being created by the weaver for each family in the village ensured he stayed in business throughout the year. Simple business logic and unique. Also, a matter of pride for a village. Uma once tried to understand the different ways of wearing sarees and gave up that endeavour as she found even within one single state of the country there were hundred of methods in which women wore sarees. In Tamilnadu where I live, women are known to wear their sarees based on the number of children they have, the community they belong to, etc. I have heard that similarly one can find out a lot from the way the pagdi headgear is worn by men in some communities. There is a simple beauty, yet a social communication too happens through this medium.
I often cite his example of how many communities are involved in the birth and death ritual in traditional societies, that all of them had a role to play in a moment of human emotional vulnerability. That somehow the community came together on those occasions with their respective products and services to communicate that they were together with the new born or the death in celebration or mourning, and did so in such an ordered way, where each one gave their best and the best was also part of the ritual of all the other communities. Whenever I cite this with people over 50, I always hear them add and enhance this story with their own village / community variations; whenever I share it with people less than 50, they are awestruck, even as they are unable to comprehend the complexity of the inter-relationship.
Increasingly, since my encounter with Guruji, I have started to look at the absence of the sense of aesthetics in our midst. One of the things I have been suggesting to the rural ‘development’ agencies is to organize literary festivals in villages, where they can invite some sincere writers to come and read their work, that unless such literature, art form, etc. are celebrated again in our village societies, our future generations will lose the sense of beauty that is from inside as a growth. This is what Guruji reminds us again and again.
The buzz in the head… It is the same with several people whom one respects. A move away from their physical presence does not stop the conversation. These are dialogues of life that one carries on with oneself and which shape other dialogues with the society at large as well.
Added in Aug 2018: When this earlier article was given to me, I looked at the number of pages I had penned, perhaps 8 years ago and wondered, ‘only 3?’, because, I have cited these stories in the in between time perhaps a few hundred times. I had last met with Guruji a few years ago in Delhi and since then I hadn’t had the opportunity to visit him at all as his health deteriorated. We had planned to invite him over to Auroville in 2017 for a joint workshop with Jinan, but, he couldn’t come due to the health condition. When the news of demise came, my immediate feeling was of losing a great story teller. Only 10 days before I had been shocked to hear the sudden and untimely passing away of a young story teller, Ankit Chada. Ankit was reviving a unique story telling tradition called dastangoi and narrating stories. I had met with him when he was narrating the story of Gandhi earlier this year. So, when Guruji’s demise came, I had to text Pawanji saying another story teller gone, now who will tell the stories.
Over the period, I have come to recognize the power of story telling and that is what has made the few encounters with Guruji extremely memorable for me.