An afternoon in Havana

A hunt for Cuban art becomes a reminder of a fast disappearing world, invokes the connection between individuals and the journeys countries take.

Written by Sanjay Verma | Updated: July 11, 2018 12:05:06 am
A relationship between nations articulated by a diminutive and mourning widow.(Illustration: CR Sasikumar)

We were in beautiful Havana on Friday, June 22, for President Ram Nath Kovind’s state visit. This was after the successful first-two legs of the tour in Athens, Greece and Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname. President Kovind was the first Indian head of state to visit Suriname and Cuba.

On Friday, after the banquet lunch hosted by the Cuban president in honour of Rashtrapatiji, the final element of the visit was an address by our president at the impressive Havana University. We were scheduled to fly out shortly thereafter. Only two hours were available between these two engagements. Sight-seeing is hardly ever on the agenda in state visits. Retail therapy is also something that can only be stolen from the schedule, if at all. When in Havana, Cuban rum and cigars make it into most visitors’ shopping basket. But I was looking for some Cuban art that afternoon. I will come to that.

Born within the first two decades of Independent India, my memories of nation-building in the 1970s and 80s and ideological divides across the globe then is first-hand and lived. We saw the world and ourselves very differently then. It was another era. The feel in Havana was a throwback to that past.

My image of Cuba till this visit was an aggregation of a proud people and nation defiant in its adherence to a song the lyrics of which were fast fading everywhere. This impression was supplemented by recollections of big and colourful postage stamps as only early socialist states brought out; the sugar bowl of the world; the country that produced top-class boxers; the Cuban missile crisis as a classic example in game theory; Buena Vista Social Club; Fidel Castro bear-hugging Indira Gandhi at the NAM Summit in 1983; a country with social indicators that could be the envy of any developed geography; and not to forget, Salman Khan doing what he does best in Old Havana and its iconic waterfront in Kabir Khan’s Ek tha Tiger.

The afternoon of June 22, however, held an experience that transcended the personal and was a reminder of a fast-disappearing world. Accompanied by Rocio, a local interpreter arranged by our embassy, I rushed to Old Havana to “acquire” a representative Cuban painting. Time was short. The humidity and heat was thick enough to be carved. After about an hour of browsing I still had not shortlisted any painting. At that point I asked Rocio what local art finds place in a Cuban home. Did she have some at her home? Did she have a photo of any Cuban painting at her place? Rocio did. She pulled out her phone and showed me a painting at her place. I liked it. Rocio added that it was done by her mother’s friend and volunteered to check if the artist was available and whether she had some other paintings for sale. A quick call. The artist was at home and we could see some options there.

All was arranged. But now, the dilemma. Do I leave the remaining options available in Old Havana and check out the artist? What if I don’t like what she has on offer? Would I then leave Cuba without a painting? The gut said go to the artist. If nothing else, see a Cuban home from the inside. Shortly, we were in a small apartment on the first floor of an old building. The rising heat and humidity was, however, challenging my enthusiasm for local art. The artist, Isabel Rodriguez, lived with her daughter, Yuli. Isabel’s husband, a professor of art, had passed away recently. Isabel was his student and then his wife, I learnt. The daughter Yuli began showing me pencil sketches and paintings. My art receptor was refusing to respond. A moral fix emerged. Should I buy something just to be polite?

Helpful Isabel added her effort and started pulling out more paintings. She also showed me an incredibly beautiful portrait of Rabindranath Tagore done by her late husband for an exhibition. I liked that portrait, but I was looking for a Cuban Cuban painting.

Then it appeared. A largish painting in primary colours bordering on the pastel of a Cuban man whose face was hidden under a hat. Yes, this was it! All boxes were ticked immediately. I pulled it aside. My excitement met an opposite response from Isabel. Was it the price? I was ready to pay anything for it. Isabel’s face fell, silence and sadness followed. Rocio translated that Isabel was sorry that she had shown me the piece. It was her deceased husband’s work and one of his favourite paintings. He had chosen to never exhibit it. She should not have displayed it. The painting was too personal. I could not have it. I saw the emotions behind the sentiment. Some more paintings were presented. The heat was getting to me. The room only had a small pedestal fan. Meanwhile, the man under the cap refused to leave my mind space.

Let me give it another shot. To convince the family, I showed Isabel and her daughter images of my home in New Delhi laden with art from around the world and how this painting would find a place of pride there and subsequently also travel with us on foreign assignments to be shared with the world. Isabel was all teared up. A vulnerable wife was still dealing with the halving of her world. I now felt the pain this meeting had stirred in the family. The sadness at their loss was mine too. I apologised profusely. I had clearly and deeply disturbed Isabel.

I prepared to leave. Isabel, still sobbing, rolled up the painting. And then the unexpected. Tears streaming down her face she extended her hands with the painting to me. You may have it, she said in Spanish. And she refused to take any money in exchange. Or accept anything at all in return. I was overwhelmed.

What is it that led me to this house in Havana? I had known the family for less than 30 minutes, but here I was receiving a cherished attachment. I asked Isabel: Why me? Why was she parting with something which meant so much to her, her home and family? “I don’t know why all of this is happening. Please see this painting as a repayment of a debt Cuba owes India,” Isabel sobbed. My emotions, under control till then, were ruptured. I hugged the artist and we wept in togetherness.

A relationship between nations articulated by a diminutive and mourning widow.

In a humbled daze I left the modest home peopled by an extraordinary family. I was taking with me an afternoon that spoke about death, bereavement, letting go, selflessness, grace, generosity of spirit and of a people across the globe who have felt, lived and embodied the spirit of their land and the connect between individuals and the journeys countries take.

As I move onto the next state visit, I am encouraged to let this painting be displayed at a venue little more public in Delhi than my home. Let the caption under it read, “Presented by a Cuban artist to the Indian people for a journey shared”. The painter, Professor Orlando Yanez, I may disclose, is considered as one of the modern masters of Cuban art.

Sometimes you can live a lifetime in an afternoon. I did.

The writer is Chief of Protocol in the Ministry of External Affairs

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