Daily Archives: July 22, 2011

Interview with… C. Douglas

Photo: S.S. Kumar

An interview with C. Douglas is rather like spending a couple of hours wandering through one of his tortured grey-black canvases filled with dark symbolism and cryptic metaphor. There are no straight answers to be had from this celebrated artist, no simple facts to be gleaned, no easy conclusions to be drawn.

“The hallmark of a good poem or painting is that you can keep interpreting, interpreting, interpreting,” he says at one point, as we sit at his work table, surrounded by pots filled with mud (a regular ingredient of his artworks), battered paint brushes, and books of intense Russian poetry. “What you get from it when you’re 16 isn’t what you get from it at 50. It isn’t a finished product.”

Douglas’ telling of his own artistic journey has a similar sense of open-endedness. He describes it at different times as a process of “learning and unlearning”, an “eternal postponement” in finding the meaning or essence of life, and a fight against losing our past, our history (“memory is so important, yet ignorance and forgetfulness is waiting for all of us like death,” he says. “The struggle of every artist and writer is to save us from forgetting.”)

‘Suffering’, ‘loss’, ‘struggle’… these are words that feature often in his narrative, but it wouldn’t be right to label Douglas the classic ‘tortured artist’. There’s too much contentment in his cosy existence in the tiny cottage (charmingly framed by flowering creepers) he owns at Cholamandal Artists’ Village, too much warmth in the companionship he shares with Zen, the improbably-named street dog he’s adopted, and too much enjoyment in his easy friendship with neighbourhood kids (“Hi pattas thatha!” a little guy squeaks as he alights from his auto after school — there is, apparently, a rather sweet story behind that moniker.)

As we speak, it also emerges that Douglas, today, feels a certain sense of comfort in being part of the city’s art scene. “I feel inter-related to the art world in Chennai,” he says, “I don’t feel alienated at all, otherwise I’d go away to Baroda or Mumbai. Chennai is home; I’m happy to stay here and contribute.”

His relationship with the city stretches back to the early 1970s, when he came to Madras from his native Kerala in search of an escape from boredom. “I wasn’t completely conscious of the reasons why, but I was unhappy and bored in those days, going about reading existentialist literature (which everyone was doing in the 1970s),” he says with a smile.

He was already drawn to art (“‘art is the flight from boredom’, as Nietzsche says”), and had studied under Balan Nair in Tellicherry. In 1971, his search led him to the Government College of Arts and Crafts in Madras, and there, he found an unexpected sense of belonging.

“I started coming to Cholamandal on weekends, and spending time with people such as K.C.S. Paniker and K. Ramanujam,” he says. “Through them, I found meaning to go on. They gave me understanding, a sense of faith. I remember, once the art critic Josef James told me, ‘Douglas, you’ll be taken care of here’.”

He adds thoughtfully. “I think that’s the important difference I found between Tamil Nadu and Kerala, this idea of faith, of nambikkai — not religious faith, but faith in life.”

In the years that followed, Douglas came to be known as one of the eminent artists to emerge from the Madras Art Movement. But his travels weren’t done. His marriage to Mona, a theatre artiste he met at Max Mueller Bhavan in Madras took him away to Germany for a large chunk of the 1980s, during which time some of the most distinctive aspects of his mature artistic style came together.

The result are the paintings that art lovers and collectors are today familiar with — works on textured, tortured paper, worked over in mud, resin and charcoal, filled with poetry, human angst, and, in his words, disaster. “I love the fragility of paper, that it can be torn and frayed, that it can at any time fall apart,” he says. “I sometimes wonder if I should switch to canvas for my larger works, but it’s too stretched and strong, too brave.”

Canvas is, in other words, the very antithesis of all that powerfully attracts Douglas about life — its evanescence and its frailty, its pain and its struggle. So are the expensive ‘art shop’ materials he largely eschews — “I took a vacation once and painted on nice paper, with nice materials, but then went back to my poor man’s paper and mud,” he says.

In the early 1990s, Douglas returned to Chennai and to Cholamandal, his place of comfort and belonging, and purchased his little nook in the village. But even today, the notion of ‘contentment’ sits uncomfortably on this 60-year-old’s shoulders. “There’s danger in being contented,” he says shaking his head. “Art is about wounds.”

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Book Launch: Rashmi Bansal’s ‘I have a dream’

“I Have a Dream”, Rashmi Bansal’s third book in her series on Indian entrepreneurs, is her most idealistic one so far. “In fact, there was some apprehension that it might not do as well as the other two, since it wasn’t about people making money or being successful in the conventional sense,” says Rashmi, who was recently in town to launch the book at Landmark, Citi Centre. “But the stories are so inspiring, and each one so unique, that I was sure readers would respond to it.”

The book tells the stories of 20 ‘social entrepreneurs’, idealists who aren’t driven by the bottom dollar, but have started NGOs for social change, led movements for the greater good, or dedicated their lives to the service of others.

“Working on this was a different experience altogether,” says the journalist, blogger, motivational speaker and entrepreneur, who is co-founder and editor of Just Another Magazine (JAM). “Many of the people I featured were quite reluctant to even give me an interview, insisting the credit belonged to their entire team.”

Her personal favourite is Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International (an organisation that works for clean toilets and the rightful place in society for those who once cleaned them). “When you see someone who has devoted 40 to 45 years of his life to create a revolution in a particular area of society, it really touches you,” she says. “He was just another person like you or me, who was floundering and trying to find his way, but when the opportunity came to make a difference, he made a commitment to it.”

Rashmi’s own foray into writing on entrepreneurship happened almost by accident, when she was approached by her alma mater IIM-A to do a project on MBAs who’ve chosen to turn entrepreneur. “The book wasn’t even meant to be published,” she recalls. “They had just planned to make about 100 copies to distribute internally.”

But, it did end up being published — as “Stay Hungry Stay Foolish” (2008) — and became an unexpected success. “A number of people wrote into us saying it had either given them the courage to begin their own businesses, or the motivation to keep going through rough times,” she says.

This was followed by the equally well-received “Connect the Dots” (on non-MBA entrepreneurs), and it was obvious that Rashmi had struck a chord. “There’s a wave of entrepreneurship in India today, and perhaps people needed new role models,” she says. “Earlier, our only models were foreign successes such as Bill Gates, or a Tata or a Birla. But, when you read about 20 regular people who’ve made successes of themselves, people with backgrounds similar to yours, it’s easier to relate to.”

Times have changed since Rashmi turned entrepreneur back in 1995, when she started JAM along with friends. “We just felt there was a need for a youth magazine and got charged up,” she says, adding with a laugh, “We started in one room, with Rs. 50,000, which we used to buy one computer — we didn’t even know the words ‘entrepreneur’ or ‘venture capitalists’ then!”

But, her experiences have helped her speak to the youth of the country today — through her blog ‘Youth Curry’, her seminars, and, of course, through her books. “I didn’t plot or plan any of this; I’ve just been lucky that all my experiences have culminated in what I do today,” she smiles.

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