How does it feel that on the eve of republic day when you are talking to a “beggar” (that’s how people addressed him) and you learn that he was born in 1947, the year of independence? One cannot help but draw analogies between their life, journey and struggle after more than six decades of sovereign existence. As the saga unfolded, my exasperation kept on soaring like that of the mercury in the desert summers! Chinaswamy Gopal, the man in rags, sits outside Rajiv Gandhi Park about half a kilometre from Bahauddin Science College which is distinguished as the oldest science college in Gujarat. He cleans the nearby Jain temple that pays for his food. Passersby and visitors occasionally throw a few coins, sometimes in appreciation of his art or in respect of the gods/goddesses he makes occasionally. With these coins he buys the chalks and colours he needs. He says, “People mistake me for a beggar, that’s their view. I can’t change. But mind it, I am not a beggar, I am an artist.” And for the readers, I want to share that these words are not translated from any of the regional languages, he actually said these with a typical European accent. For a second, it was difficult to gasp what he said. I must admit that we fail to identify or recognise or appreciate anything that comes from unexpected quarters! It takes time to sink in.
Gopal was born in Bangalore in 1947. He remembers growing up seeing the Secretariat built. He says that the labourers worked in very bad conditions, many died while carrying the stones (granite). He lived with his mother and grandmother. His father died when he was very young. He left home in 1971 to work for a blacksmith cum trader from Bengal who used to make horse shoes. He was given the task of hitting the hammer when the shoe was made. He stayed with him for the next four- five years and left the job. All through the years he travelled to different places taking up odd jobs, he worked as a farm labourer, welder, driver and sculptor. He worked in Nepal for sometime where he met a few Europeans from he learnt English. He met a German tourist who taught him a few tricks with match sticks. It was quite amusing to see him performing the tricks. He could actually give a tough competition to the dexterity of a seasoned magician, I felt.
About 20 years ago he met with an accident. Labour became the antonym of survival. Since then, he travelled to different places, takes up some job like that of sweeping or something which can take care of his food and makes drawings with chalks, colours, rangoli colours, rice, etc. He came to Junagadh three years back, prior to which he used to draw near Rajkot station. He sleeps under the stars in the park, wakes up at four. After ablutions, he cleans up the temple and then drinks tea. It takes about 15-20 min for him to make the drawing on the floor and then he sits there. There might be others who paint amazing pictures but his techniques were so smooth and fast. The ease with which he made the sketches can hold anybody’s attention, like he made “5” then asked us, “What was this?” it appeared weird and surprising that he was asking me such a simple question, a question that is better asked to a nursery kid. So, as if doubting my ears, I asked, “what?” to which he repeated, “What is this?” I said, “FIVE” and then within seconds he made it into a lion and then he made it sit, sleep stand, wiping a part and drawing it in another form. Next he made a mouse which turned into a squirrel, rabbit, caterpillar, deer and a kangaroo in just a couple of minutes. He made a beautiful girl who held a diya in her palms, then greeted ‘Namaste’ with folded arms, and then turned into lord Shiva, Hanuman and Ganesha, successively. He says, “To learn any art form, the mantra is simple. Passion and practice” and assured that with practice I too, will be able to learn his art. He showed us different tricks with matchsticks and glasses. He could hold our attention all throughout. A small boy was loitering around, seeing him I asked Gopal why didn’t he teach his art to kids like him? To which he said that he had tried but it is a matter of interest and also it is easier for them to beg instead of doing this. Occasionally, he paints in the nearby shops. He used to light incense sticks, probably to keep away mosquitoes and also invoke religious feelings in the passersby (of course to earn a few more coins) but stopped doing so when he noticed that the careless dupatta or anchal caught fire (no, humans are not careless! They don’t see the art which is so prominently present there, they don’t see the lions and the birds drawn; with the faint hope that the gods will draw their attention, the artist lits up an incense stick. But even that does not help either. Their clothes caught the smothering darts, may be in protest for the deliberate blindness!
He fondly remembers his sculptures in some temple near Surat. We invited him to Ahmedabad to teach his art to the kids around, to which he agreed. He said that Ahmedabad would be colder than Junagadh, so its better for him to stay in Junagadh for a few more months. He said, “I will clean up, shave and come to Ahmedabad and teach you and other kids the art. I will get some work in some temple and in the evening I will teach.” I could make out that he thought that the parks in Ahmedabad would be too cold for him to sleep. He wanted to go back home but the postponement took years and now he says, “No one would be alive by now, neither my grandma nor my mother. No point going back now. Death is near and I should wait for it to happen”
At the fall of the day, he lit up a small lamp nearby his art work wishing that some passerby will see the artist in the beggar!