by Malcolm Carvalho
“Hello, Madamji,” Madan said, presenting his best smile. “Some excellent Madhubani paintings from Bihar. Come, have a look.”
The woman glanced around the stall. “Thank you, I’m just checking out the exhibition. Will come back later.”
That’s what most of them said. How many would visit his stall again? He went back to his little notebook. Twenty-seven paintings sold in two days. Not bad, considering that he had made only a minimal investment in putting up the stall. The Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath had arranged for his travel from Patna into bustling Bangalore. The accommodation was quite okay too. Now if only he could push the sales.
He stood up and began cleaning the frames with his flannel cloth. Most of the ones put up around the stall awed him. His grandmother’s work had such detail, such elegance. No wonder most visitors were first drawn to her compositions. Even those by his mother had been getting better over the years.
“That one looks beautiful, no? We should get one for our hall.”
He turned around. A couple stood gazing at the depiction of a peacock.
“Good afternoon, Sirji, Madamji. Come, I’ll show you some more works.”
He pulled out some sheets and laid them around.
“These by my Daadi. She’s been painting for 50 years. Padma Shri winner you know.” He pointed to a newspaper clip pinned to his right. “Which ones do you like, Sirji? Look, we have Radha Krishna, Ardhanarishvara. Some other Indian designs – elephants, peacocks. All in Madhubani style. Make very good gifts for your friends also. And these are made by my mother.”
He let them look over the display. The art needed to sink in to catch its audience. He wondered if he could show them his work. Would they appreciate it? After all, very few people had. None of his paintings had been sold so far, even though they were priced lower than the others. Maybe he didn’t have it in him. He glanced at his canvasses he had kept in a corner. They did not have the same richness as the others. At twenty-two, age was on his side. His skills would improve as he practiced. But between now and then, it seemed like an arduous journey.
He decided to take a chance. “Madamji,” he said as he moved the stack of canvasses before her, “here’s some of my work.” A pause. Then apologetically, “They’re not as good as my Daadi’s, so they are priced lower.”
“These look nice too,” the woman told her companion. “But we can’t afford to buy too many.”
“Then you should buy my Daadi’s designs. Mine are just okay.”
The couple sifted through the work and chose a couple of his grandmother’s creations – one depicting scenes from Krishna’s heroics and another with an ornately decorated elephant.
“We’ll come back to see the other stuff,” the woman said. “Till when is the exhibition open?”
“Another five days, Madamji.”
“Oh, that may not be long enough. All the best. You have a lovely stall here.”
He watched them leave with mixed feelings. He had made another sale. Another sale of work that was not his. Yes, it was all in the family. Yet that hurt even more: knowing that he was now a mere salesman, an aspiring artist who might never make it big. Who was still miles behind the successful people in his family. He wondered why he still carried on. He had a few unfinished paintings back in the room where he was put up. Maybe he should abandon those.
Yes, maybe he should just stick to the business side of the family. He could carve out a decent living that way.
Later that evening, a gentleman in his mid-thirties bought a painting, one Madan had made. So, someone did appreciate his work, he thought.
Just as he was winding up for the evening, the man turned up again.
“Bhaiyya, I changed my mind. The painting I bought is nice, but I’d like to change this for something else. That one behind you. I’ll take that.”
Madan turned. The man had come back to get a piece made by his mother. “Sure, Sirji. I’ll pack it for you.”
He wrapped the selected frame and handed it to the customer. He took back the earlier piece, and having ensured that no one was watching, ripped off the packing and flung the painting in a corner.
Why could no one find value in his work?
He wrapped up work, had a quick meal at the canteen, and made his way back to the room he had been put up at. He could not just sit and let things happen. He had been foolish to even consider giving up earlier in the day. He pulled out one of his works in progress, a postcard sized sheet with a faintly sketched outline. Even if he did complete it, even if he did his best, what was the point of it all?
Just then his phone rang.
“Beta, how is the exhibition going? Are you making good sales?”
“Haan Amma, today was very good. Saturday, so good crowd. Sales have also picked up. Aiya’s* work has been a big hit. And even yours was appreciated.”
He paused. Maybe she would ask him how his work had been received.
“Beta, you must work hard. We are all depending on you to make some big sales.”
“Achcha, we have to sleep now. You also rest well. Good night.”
Couldn’t Amma see he was hurting? Maybe even the family believed he didn’t have talent.
He estimated he had made about fifty paintings in the last two years. How many sales had he made? Just two. He remembered all the venues he had been to recently. Delhi, Mumbai, Pune. His work had not attracted many visitors; it was still not good enough. Would it ever be?
So what, he would improve on it. He pulled out a box from his cupboard – it had a few paints his grandmother used. He opened it and drew out the small vials. He pulled out one of Daadi’s paintings, and began copying the colour scheme. His sketch had to look as vibrant as hers. Stroke for stroke, he copied her. But no, this seemed mechanical. He carried on anyway.
As he took in every detail, he began to find flaws in Daadi’s art too. The hands looked huge, the face a tad small. How was this possible? Was he being plain jealous? No, he was just being overly critical, the way he had been critical of himself.
He abandoned the piece, and started afresh. He sketched a tree, its branches spreading outward from the center of the sheet. In his imagination, a lush green tree with a peacock flying to perch on a branch. He pictured the rising sun in the background, its rays filtering through the branches. A dark silhouette against the brilliance of the sun. Would this look good? Would people love it?
No, stop pulling yourself down again. He dabbed the brush with more colour, and within minutes he was lost in his work. In the calm of the night, his brushstrokes began nervously. As he went on, he steadied himself, and continued with deft, confident movements.
He carried on till late into the night. When he stopped at 2 am, he was still nowhere close to finishing the piece. He stepped back and looked at the progress so far. The doubts returned; was this good enough? Stop it, he told himself. He could assess the piece once it was complete. For now, it had just been a satisfying night.
He spread out the works in the stall, feeling a much more positive vibe. The progress he had made last night had given him fresh hope. As he set about wiping the glass frames, he stumbled across his works, and put the pile back in the far corner of the stall.
“Hello,” a voice greeted him as he was putting up one of the frames.
“Yes, Madamji.” He remembered it was the woman who had visited the previous day with her companion.
“I want to see the other works you had shown. I believe you had made those yourself?”
“Yes, yes. Come, I can show you some.”
He spread out the canvasses. He felt self-conscious again, seeing his modest works in the backdrop of the masterpieces.
The woman chose a paperback-sized work, then haggled over the price. He could not figure out if she really appreciated the piece or just wanted to make a cheap purchase. Was he giving away his art for too little just to boost his ego?
Again, overthinking. Stop that. Now. Some more negotiating followed before they agreed on a price.
“This will go up in my son’s room,” she said. “He’ll love it.”
“But you picked some pieces yesterday, Madamji. Why not one of those?”
“Ah, he said those were too bright.” She looked at the one she had just purchased. “He seems to prefer somber tones, I think this one will do it. I’ll gift the other ones away.”
While she walked away, Madan thought of his work in progress from the night before. He had envisioned the peacock to have bright bold hues. But then it was a twilight scene. Perhaps a dark mellow hue would be just right.
He could not wait to get back to his room.
*Aiya – grandmother in Maithili