Chandra Mohan Bhandari – ‘Himalayan Splendour’
My first meeting with Soumitra (Sumit as he was known) was a matter of simple chance. I had entered the art gallery by default. In town for some work and having completed the same, all that was left was to wait for the train. As I did not like to trouble my uncle for just a few hours I decided to spend time reading a book I had brought with me, sitting comfortably in a bench in the city park. It was a hot and stuffy noon and I soon realized that it would be better to stay indoors. Fortunately the Art gallery was right across the road and it was a place where two and a half hours could be spent comfortably with purpose. While entering the gallery I hardly anticipated that I would be able to relish a beautiful exhibition of promising work by young artists who were struggling to make a mark. It was undoubtedly an inspiring display of creative talent. I am certainly not a great connoisseur of art but then good art like good music can be immediately recognized by its soothing and sensitizing effect on the nerves. I have a great liking for a good piece of work – be it art, literature or music – the work which is simple and yet has deeper implications. The themes of the paintings displayed were varied and so were the artists. I spent most of my time admiring the landscape paintings.
Among the young artists was Soumitra Sen from Kharagpur whose artistic talent surprised me as it was not an exhibition at the national or even the state level, and most other participants were from the nearby districts. Later I learnt from the artist himself that he considered Kumaon region as his second home and did not consider himself an outsider. The theme of his almost two dozen paintings on display ‘Himalayan Splendour’. I was fascinated by the varied portrayals of the splendour was possible. In fact I spent a good time in understanding one particular painting and tried to correlate it with the theme. What appeared on the canvas was a fight between two giants with their heads in collision and hands entangled, heads badly bruised and a kind of haze emanating and rising from the injured region upward; just where the haze pointed there were the mountains. I thought of calling the volunteer on duty to help me when I heard someone speaking:
- Hello Sir, how do you like this painting. I am Soumitra, you may call me Sumit.
- Oh, so you are the artist. I have liked many of your paintings but this one, although appealing and impressive, is somewhat unclear.
- Conflict and creativity could very well be the theme of this particular piece, although I have not given it the title. In fact I have not given any title to most of the work presented here, and they are put under the same title - Himalayan Splendour.
- Yes, I think you should have done that and with a proper title it could make greater appeal.
- The artist should say only half and leave the rest to be filled by the viewer. However, this painting has some deeper connotation and could easily be linked with Himalayas.
I did not say anything but fixed my gaze at him eyeing him squarely. He continued:
- It’s related to the creation of Himalayan mountain range.
He smiled and waited for me to say something. I was unclear for almost fifteen seconds or so and suddenly the thing flashed before my eyes:
- Oh dear, now I understand, you mean the collision of two continents due to continental drift and creation of the Himalayas. Oh my God, how could this escape me! I have been describing this collision and consequent creation of the Himalayas in many of my essays.
The artist laughed heartily as if enjoying my discomfiture, of course in a jovial way. I too joined him after some initial hesitation. A couple standing just behind me entered the discussion and wanted this to be clarified as they were still unclear of the whole issue and they had been listening to our conversation. I explained:
- The continents as we see them are really not static, they keep moving albeit slowly. Long ago – nearly 15 crore years - the continent this land was a part of started moving northward and collided with one already there; as a result of the impact and constant pressure, the area in the impact region rose high forming what we know as the Himalayas. The two giants in the painting represent two continents and the haze going up is the mountain.
The couple were pleased to hear this interpretation, one of them said:
It may have some other implication too.
Soumitra said – That is true. In fact in most cases it is the conflict that may give rise to creative urge. And this is true not only for the art form but science too.
This was our first brief meeting but then we had developed an immediate rapport and kept in touch even after. What made it possible to interact more frequently was our common area of interest – the Kumaon Hills, and a common interest in hiking. That was the place I spent my childhood and kept returning to visit although not regularly. Sumit was on a hiking trip to the region some eight years back. He fell in love with the hills, its hiking trails and the viewing of the snow covered ranges from varying angles. He had been to Himachal region, Kashmir and Darjeeling in his own home state – and nearby Sikkim. Every place had its own charm and beauty. yet here he struck a chord – the hills, the people, the food, moderate climbs, … taking all factors into account this was the place he chose some sort of a permanent abode- his second home. Once he said during our talks:
- It seems that in my previous birth I must have belonged to this place. I see no other explanation for my intense liking of this region.
- I just smiled. And after a minute’s silence I said –
- Truly speaking many of us have our second homes, and third too. We are by birth at one place, by our inclinations, at another, and by our liking at yet another.
- You have put it all very nicely and elegantly.
- What else you have been doing- apart from hiking and painting.
- As if hiking and painting are not enough.
- Yes, they are quite a lot, but I have seen your table full of books.
- Oh yes, I enjoy reading. Of late I have been reading the travel accounts of Paul Theroux. He is different from other travel writers and his writing has all the elements of literary spectrum – travel, fiction, people, their culture, historical perspective and literary inclination.
- I agree. I too have been impressed by his travels and writing. Quite often his travel is full of adventure too.
And the fact that he wants to be a traveller and not a tourist. He avoids the common and rather well known places and goes for something beyond.
- I will say, his is a new kind of writing which gives a mix of novel, essay, history, culture and almost everything related to the region, even anthropological aspect.
Sumit has been writing his own travel accounts too but with a different perspective. He emphasized the inward journeys more than the outwards. The theme of his painting on conflict and creativity that brought us together was his obsession too in the larger sense of the term.
I gradually got so used to Sumit’s company and his travel accounts and hikes that I eagerly waited for the summer when he would he heading towards the region. On two occasions I joined his hiking excursions from Mukteshwar to Binsar, and further to Kausani and I thoroughly enjoyed it. My physical stamina prevented me from accompanying him in more rigorous expeditions. However, Sumit kept on raising his level of expeditions He had that essential element which gave mental toughness.
Among Theroux’s books we had discussed were ‘Happy Isles of the Oceania’ and ‘Riding the Iron Rooster’ which were accounts for his tough expeditions to Pacific isles and China including Tibet. We discussed in a lighter vain the possibility of taking up such expeditions. Pacific was out of question and Tibet too was a distant dream yet the idea kept hovering in his mind and that did not let him be at peace. Finally what emerged was the other side of Tibet where we actually were but a more demanding excursion. He chalked out a plan to hike from Kausani to Pithorgarh, then via Nepal to Sikkim and Bhutan and invited me to join. I could not prepare myself for this level of toughness.
Next two years rolled by as usual and I was with Sumit in arranging one of his painting exhibitions-cum-lectures in Lucknow. I was to deliver a lecture on Hiking Our Way to Ecological Concerns. The exhibition and accompanying lectures were a success and it could generate a lot of enthusiasm among the audience for ecological aspects.
We seldom saw each other for the next two years. However we were in constant touch through emails, exchanging our own pieces of published and unpublished work. Sumit could not visit the Himalayan hills the next year; he was busy with a few other excursions which included his visit to the Koraput region in Orissa.
The tribes and their customs in the region was his main concern and it appeared that the naturalist in him compromised with the humanist in him. This was not his first visit to the region. But this one was arranged during summer and coincided with his hiking plans in Himalayas. We finally saw each other after a gap of three years. It was at Mukteshwar that we arranged to meet where we spent time in each other’s company for four days. He was on his way to his most arduous hike – Binsar to Bhutan via Nepal.
I admired this person. His active mind kept on churning new ideas and patterns and kept him restless. This restlessness was a motivating force that kept him constantly on his heels. He was busy chalking out possible routes to take and necessary survival kit during well-known and somewhat less known hiking routes. I accompanied him up to Baijnath and wished him well. It was not a difficult hike but in our conditions it was not easy either. He would be all alone and unlike in the western countries not much could be relied upon the system in moments of possible crisis. Hence I wished all the best for his ambitious trip. He told me repeatedly that his was not an adventure trip as I had made it to be. All these routes were well known an inhabited. The only thing that was required on long hikes was to keep fit physically and mentally.
I bade him good bye and asked him to keep me informed. I prayed to God to make the trip successful on both counts – to give him the desired satisfaction that he has been looking for. I wished that he remained in good health and spirits and that soon he would appear before me and we two would resume our hiking and literary sessions. The last I heard from him was about fifteen days after his departure from Baijnath on April 6.
An email from him dated 21 April gave an account of his travels and stay in Kathmandu, where he met Sachin, a common friend of ours. When he left Kathmandu on way to eastern Nepal our contact was lost. Sachin too could also not tell what might have happened. Was he safe, or was it his ‘maunvrat’ to willingly go into some sort of ‘hibernation’ – we could not tell. I often thought of the worst. Two years thence I received a mail from Vivek, a former colleague of Sumit on a fakir e in a remote village in Eastern Nepal. It was reported that a small school was being run by two men and one of them resembled Sumit. One of the trekkers told him that while trekking in the region he had to spend the night at the school, and while coming back, he had taken a photo with the children. The photo of a bearded man may not be revealing but then I could also see a painting just behind them on the wall. And unmistakably it was the same painting that heralded our friendship.
It was the same painting of two giants clashing with which our friendship had taken roots. Had Sumit written the last chapter of that relationship, I wondered.
Finally I did hear from him to my elation. This is the para which I need to quote:
Wandering hills and valleys, I realized that I am not close to what I expected – some kind of inner equilibrium. When I reached this village I fell seriously ill. With inadequate help and resources in a remote Himalayan village if I survived, it was due to the care of an elderly couple and their son’s family. I later came to know that their elder son left home some twenty five years ago in search of a job. They received two letters from Bombay. They were his last letters. Nothing could be known about him even after his father visited Bombay. There was nothing to work upon, neither the address where he lived or his photograph. They haven’t forgotten their child. I being from India and around the same age perhaps touched some cord in their hearts. Moreover, among the snow covered mountains I realized what had been missing from my life – seeking harmony with your own self, with others around you and with the ever rising mighty Himalayas. This Himalaya splendour is not merely a geographical and geological phenomenon that initiated ten crore years ago and continues today – it operates at the inner level too.
Most important of all it is a continuous psychic phenomena. Deep in the layers of our mind there are conflicting interactions akin to collision of continents. Every impact creates something new, and if properly nurtured lifts the spirit. That must have been the experience of sages and Rishis in ancient times, and it is something similar I have experienced.
I am sending you a painting recently completed and this is just for you.
I opened the packet that consisted of a long rolled sheet and spread it on the table. A high snow covered peak surrounded by many smaller ones. That was a familiar scene of many of his works – the Himalayas as seen from Binsar or Kausani. It was titled: ‘overlapping minds’. Yes, there was something else – I could see overlapping human heads with each peak indicating probably a collective thought or inspiration.
The framed painting hangs on my wall as a testimony to the great transformation triggered by the mighty Himalayas. The two paintings – fighting giants and overlapping minds – are my proud possessions; they keep reminding me of my friend and the Himalayan Splendour at both levels – out there and deep inner layers.