by Bhuvaneswari M
Muthu stepped out of the building, diploma in hand, grinning from ear to ear. He had just graduated from the Government College of Fine Arts, Chennai. It was a dream come true, after a struggle of 6 years. Due to the sudden death of his father, he had scored low marks in the class 12 exams, and hence was initially denied admission.
“I got in only by recommendation,” he had once revealed, to his close friend Prakash.
It wasn’t something he was ashamed of, though. The young man had worked as an apprentice with the famous artist Raghu, for two years, before the master had agreed to sign that letter. Unlike his classmates, Muthu valued every class he attended, every technique that was taught. He was determined to put in his very best.
Well, it had all paid off. Now, he was a graduate and soon, he would be exhibiting paintings in renowned art galleries. Paintings inspired by life, and especially by nature. Prakash had laughed, when he shared his idle musings. Did he know there was a waiting list of 8 years for solo exhibitions at the Jehangir Art Gallery?
Muthu shrugged. So what? Anything seemed possible, on that glorious day.
Amma was beaming and teary-eyed, as she welcomed Muthu home.
She put a laddoo into his mouth and blessed him, “At last you have completed your studies. All our struggles will end, you will start earning now”.
He looked at her tired but expectant face. Involuntarily, his eyes stopped at her old, faded saree. It was screaming at him, ‘I can fall apart anyday’.
“I should take up a job for while, then focus on my exhibition,” he said to himself.
Two years later, Muthu is working as an animator with Games and Entertainment Private Limited. His day starts at 9 am and goes on till 8 pm, leaving barely any time to eat and sleep. Let alone paint. His mother has gained some weight and wears new sarees, he also gifted her a very thin gold chain… her first ever gold chain.
One evening, Muthu passed by his college and remembered his classmate Prakash. Without thinking, he dialled a number.
“Dei, Prakash, how are you doing? Where are you?”.
“I am good da,” replied Prakash. “I am a cartoonist in India Everyday newspaper. Where are you? Long time”.
Muthu felt happy talking to his classmate. “I am working as an animatior da, earning well and living in Bangalore.”
Prakash was shocked. “What, I thought you would be painting relentlessly and calling to tell me about your upcoming exhibition!”
These words sent a chill down Muthu’s spine. Exhibition? The word no longer existed in his vocabulary. It had been replaced by stuff like ‘client’, ’deadline’ and ‘increment’. The old Muthu and his big dreams were locked away in a box called ‘childish and impractical’. But then…
Prakash continued, without realizing the storm he is creating in Muthu.
“You remember Raman, from our class? He has made paintings in blood and is planning an exhibition.”
Muthu recoiled. ” How violent and disgusting! Why would one do that?”
Prakash laughed, “These days you have to do ‘something different’ to grab eyeballs.”
The conversation went on for a while, discussing every person they knew. Two weeks later, Muthu was still replaying Prakash’s words.
I thought you would be painting relentlessly… calling about your upcoming exhibition…
He tossed and turned at night, and barely got through the day. His supervisor noticed, and called him to her cabin.
“Muthu, you have worked hard on the Disney project. Take a break, go on a holiday.”
When he broached the subject to Amma, she was excited. She had never been on a holiday. They decided to go to Mahabaleshwar. For two whole days, Amma made a fuss about packing and which snacks to carry on the journey. Muthu didn’t have the heart to tell her, let’s just buy a couple of packets of Lays.
Anyhow, the big day arrived and they hopped on to the luxury bus. It was comfortable and air-conditioned, though Muthu missed the feeling of the breeze, messing up his hair and slapping his face. The bus made a stop at Gokarna, the passengers alighted for food and bio-break.
Adjacent to the halt, was a small temple. After downing a satisfying idli-sambhar, Amma wanted to go there, for a quick darshan. Dragging his feet, Muthu followed.
He was angry with God, actually. What was the point of praying and bowing before the Lord… would it change anything?
Amma entered the temple and stood before the idol, eyes closed, hands folded. She was in a state of complete surrender. Muthu stood next to her, observing the aesthetics of the structure. It was indeed a very old temple, with some defaced yet exquisite carvings. In some other country, it would be a heritage monument.
“Here in India, art has no value,” thought Muthu, bitterly.
He turned his back and walked out, lighting up a cigarette to calm himself. That’s when his eyes fell upon a printed notice, stuck on the boundary wall.
Artist wanted at the resort ‘With Nature’.
He wondered what an artist would do in a resort! This question bothered him for the rest of the bus journey, and then, during their stay in Mahabaleshwar. Curiosity got the better of him, so he dialled the number he had saved on his phone. A pleasant female voice answered. They had a short conversation.
“No harm in going and meeting her,” he thought. So, on the way back, he told Amma, they would make a halt at Gokarna.
From the bus stand, they took a taxi, as the resort was in an out-of-the way location. After a few kilometers, the car turned on to a coastal road and Muthu rolled down his window. The salty sea breeze hit Muthu’s face, full blast. In his mind’s eye, vibrant splashes of paint landed on a virgin white canvas.
Muthu was startled. He hadn’t felt inspired to paint, in a long time.
The taxi pulled into ‘With Nature’ resort. The name was just right, thought Muthu. The entire campus was lush green, almost like a forest. There was a small lake and tall coconut trees. A short walk away was the beach, with silvery sands and thunderous waves breaking on the shore. It felt like a dream.
He met the owner – Malini – and she told him, “People come here to escape from the humdrum of life. We want to inspire them, explore their talents.”
That way, they would stay not only on weekends, but for long durations. Already, some Germans had shown interest and would be arriving soon.
“Why don’t you try it out for a month?” she said.
It was an offer Muthu could not refuse. He had a lot of leave accumulated, in any case. His supervisor was a bit taken aback but sanctioned the time off.
Muthu arrived at ‘With Nature’ resort armed with oil paint, pastels, plenty of canvas. Every morning and afternoon, he conducted sessions in the open air, sometimes, even at the beach. Muthu discovered that teaching was enjoyable, and he was good at it too. His students made excellent progress in a short time.
At the end of the month, three of the four Germans asked Malini if they could extend their stay.
“But only if Muthu sir is there… to keep guiding us.”
It was time to make a firm decision. Malini was pleased with Muthu’s work but also quite frank about her limitations.
“We can’t match your salary in Bangalore… “
That night, as Muthu strolled on the beach, the waves hit the shore in all their fury. But within, he was calm and steady as a rock.
In his mind’s eye, a hand painted bold strokes on blank canvas.
It was his hand, it was his life.
6 years later
Muthu completed his class and headed back to the cottage. Just the final touches to be put, on the last painting.
“See you at the exhibition next week,” the phone beeped. Must be Prakash, he thought. But the name with the message startled him.
Raghu, his first teacher, mentor, the artist he had looked upto. The great man had accepted his invitation. He rushed to tell Amma, and his wife Kadambari.
Life was beautiful, life was good.
This piece was written as part of an exercise in the Short Story Writing Workshop. It was further worked on, edited, by Rashmi Bansal.