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Moving finger moves on


SALUTE: Seth joins the league of artists like Andy Warhol and Francesco Clemente who have been commissioned to paint around the iconic vodka bottle

We know of Vikram Seth as a writer and poet who has challenged the boundaries of prose and poetry through his outstanding and eclectic body of work that includes a novel in sonnets (The Golden Gate), an elegant volume of poems (All You Who Sleep Tonight), a long post-independence novel on arranged marriage (A Suitable Boy), and a libretto inspired by Chinese and Indian poetry (The Rivered Earth). He has now expanded his oeuvre to include calligraphy, painting, sculpting and even etching on stone. When he's not working on his next novel, A Suitable Girl, the writer has been messing around with brushes, clay and hammers in his garage.

Recently, Absolut, a vodka brand with a 30-year-old history of commissioning artists to create works around the Absolut bottle, asked Seth to do a series of paintings, which were opened to public viewing last week. Seth joins the league of Andy Warhol, Francesco Clemente, Louise Bourgeois and Angus Fairhurst - other artists who have painted the bottle. Artist Subhodh Gupta was the first Indian artist who was commissioned by Absolut. In an early morning interview to TOI-Crest, 60-year-old Seth talks about his current visual obsession and how sculpting has added definition to his biceps. Excerpts.

This is your first painting exhibition. How did you break into a new art form?

For the last five years, I have been spending more time practising art - painting, making pottery, sculpting, etching. . . it's a visual obsession. Not many people know about it, though. Earlier this year, at the opening of the Kolkata Literary Meet, (the writer) Sunil Gangopadhyay and I did a little calligraphy on stage - he in Bengali and I in Urdu. Later, I was approached by Absolut with the idea of creating a series of paintings around their iconic bottle. I thought, why not? I wanted to find out if this idea would constrain me or free me.

The paintings are a potent cocktail of colour, calligraphy and couplets on canvas. How did you shake it up?

I played around with the shape of the bottle and calligraphy and what came out, after a lot of trial and error, was the composition of the painting - and its prevailing mood or 'rasa'. But the characters are not just what they stand for;they can be interpreted differently depending on the way you look at them. The green painting with 'pyasa pyala' written in Devanagari has a bit of music in it. The quarter-note (crotchet) rest resembles the letter 'ha' in Hindi. The 'pyasa pyala' itself can be faintly made out in the top left corner. The words 'piya-sa', in the lower left corner, are open to a little interpretation and reference. If interpreted as 'kind of drunk' it refers to the 'sleeping' bottle. But if interpreted as 'like the beloved', it might refer to the shadowy bottle standing beside the solid couple.
The red painting has the Chinese character for wine or alcohol, jiu, painted across the bottle. On the left is the colophon and below it my seal. The blue painting, Na main, na mai, painted in Urdu in Nastaleeq font means, 'Neither I nor the wine'. But it refers to the saying, 'Neither I remained nor the wine'. Three different colours, three different languages, and three different thought processes came together in a very personal rhythm.

What draws you to calligraphy?

You can read calligraphy like you can read music. When you are looking at a painting, you cannot go inside the painter's mind and work out the chronological order of things. Did he paint the eyes first or the nose? Did he first draw the tree in the background or the hut in front? But you can do that in calligraphy. You can read the artist's mind. It allows you to follow the brush strokes in an exact order. Where did he pause? Why? Where did he refill his brush with ink? In China, calligraphy is treated as an art form even higher than painting. This is the reason I studied Chinese and Arabic calligraphy. I learnt Chinese from Zhao Yizhou, and Nassar Mansour taught me Thuluth, a form of Arabic script. I used it in The Rivered Earth (2011) to create a 'mandala' with different elements like water, air and earth.

Which is your favourite font?

I like Caslon and Cochin.

In the past, a number of famous writers and poets used to paint: Aldous Huxley, Kurt Vonnegut, Sylvia Plath, e e

cummings, to name a few. Do gifted people have a special knack to apply their creativity to different mediums?

For me it is not so much about a special knack as it is about being so obsessed with something that it forces me to do it. For instance, I wrote The Golden Gate while I was supposed to be doing my Ph. D in economics at Stanford. I had been working on my thesis for ten years but then I just chucked it and dived into The Golden Gate. Similarly, it's been five years since I have had this 'dhun', this desire to practise art. I wanted to sculpt. So I looked it up on the internet and found a course and started sculpting. I have converted my garage into a working studio. What attracts me to sculpting is tactility and the fact that it changes as you move.

You seem to have a thing for activities that involve using your hands.

It's a huge joy working with your bare hands - as long as it does not involve cooking meals. Though, speaking theoretically, I may enjoy kneading dough.

Kneading is a tedious exercise and you need strong arms for it.

That shouldn't be a problem, because thanks to the hours spent sculpting in my studio, my biceps and abs seem to have gone through this super toning course. Whenever I sculpt for a bit, I look like I'm back from a health farm. Sculpting requires a lot of bending and lifting heavy things.

Do you have any favourite artists, people who inspire you?

There are plenty of artists whose works I enjoy. But, as in literature, my choice in art is fairly wide. As for inspiration, it can strike anytime. I might be in the kitchen and suddenly get the urge, say, to paint a saucepan or a glass. Or, I could be watching television and decide to pause it and paint the scene I see. Or I might force a friend to stop the car so that I can paint a certain landscape.

In the last couple of years, many cartoonists, painters and authors have faced censure from the government.

I spoke at length on this issue at the opening of the Kolkata Literary Meet. The banning of cartoons, not allowing people to read from a book, the fuss created over the paintings of one of our greatest Indian artists, shows that we need to grow up as a nation. Our sensitivity should not suppress our freedom. People in power are afraid of art because it is a tool of change and undermines their authority. Why would a chief minister take offence at a cartoon? First, because she doesn't much like being made fun of. Secondly, because she's afraid that it is her power as much as herself that is under challenge.

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