(Written by Saeed Akhtar Mirza)
I am at Mumbai airport waiting to take my flight to Ahmedabad. Since I have arrived very early I settle down and begin reading a book that I have brought along. As I read, I hear a voice call out my name.
“Excuse me, are you Mr Saeed Mirza?”
I look up to see a tall young man staring down at me enquiringly. As he adjusts the backpack over his grey T-shirt I notice he has a kind of gaunt face and long curly hair. I am surprised by the seriousness of his face… it seems strange on a man so obviously young. I also notice he is wearing slacks that are an incredible electric blue. As I try to take in all this information about the man, his voice interrupts my thoughts.
“Are you?” he asks again and this time I recover and I nod. The young man breaks into a wide smile which lightens up his serious face and l smile too.
“Sir, I am a big fan of yours… I have seen most of your films… some documentaries, one of your travelogues across India… and I have even read two of your books….”
The young man’s smile widens.
“Big fan…,” he adds.
“Thank you,” I reply. “And what do you do?”
“Sir, I am a painter. I came to check things out in Mumbai and now I am going back home.”
“Why don’t you sit down?”
The young man does so and for the next 10 minutes he tells me everything about himself. He is 23 years old and from Udaipur. He took to painting early in life encouraged by his parents and despite the tremendous odds today he has almost made it. It was tough going for a young dreamer in a small town but the struggle was worth it.
“I just got Rs 14 lakh for one painting and I am elated… It was bought by a group of buyers in Europe and they have encouraged me to carry on. It must be some record for a painter like me who is just starting out… isn’t it?”
I smile and nod as he continues about his sojourn in Mumbai.
“I felt so happy so I came to Mumbai to meet the famous art gallery owners… to check them out… but they put me off….”
“They told me that I am too ambitious… I should create smaller works, not large ones… that is how young painters start… start small and then grow… I don’t agree. I will paint the way I want to… nobody has the right to tell me what size my paintings should be… am I right?”
I like his robust attitude and say, “I agree. Paint the way you want to.”
“Thank you sir… they think they are big shots… just because they own galleries in Mumbai… so I have rejected them. In three days I made the rounds of all the galleries and I spent the rest of the week travelling from Colaba to the Prithvi Theatre in Juhu and saw plays… met some wonderful people… now I am going back… would you like to see some of my work… on my phone…?”
I hesitate a bit and then nod. As soon as I do so he whips out his mobile phone and begins showing me his paintings and adds a running commentary that describes his work… “I don’t agree with realism… I prefer the abstract… I like the work of Ram Kumar… Akbar Padamsee… abstract work is much more free… so much is left to the imagination… which painters do you like?”
As I view the rapidly changing images I say,
“Well… quite a few… let me see… I like the works of Sudhir Patwardhan, Tyeb Mehta, Atul Dodiya, Nalini Malani, Ghulam Sheikh… lots of different kinds of painters….”
“Do you like the works of Ram Kumar and Akbar Padamsee?”
“Of course I do.”
“Do you like my work?”
I stop looking at the paintings and look at the young man. I realise he is serious about knowing my opinion. So I say,
“Can I see the work once again….?”
I go over his work slowly this time and with each piece of work I tell him what I feel… the ones that I like and the ones I have problems with. In fact, there are two works that I find quite remarkable and the young man tells me that they have already been booked by the same group in Europe that had bought his earlier painting. I smile.
“You have some ready buyers… you must be a very happy man….”
“I am sir… really….”
Then slowly his face turns serious.
“But today I am not.”
I am surprised
“Why?” I ask.
“Haven’t you read the newspapers this morning?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Look what the government has done about Kashmir….”
I realise that he is talking about the revoking of Article 370 by the government of India. It was announced in Parliament yesterday (on August 6) and the headlines in the newspapers had been euphoric. There were numerous reports of rejoicing all around the country. I look at the young man silently… he seems to be in deep thought and then he began to speak very softly.
“Most of the people in our country are so happy… shouldn’t I be happy too? But I am not. I know this is a democracy and the will of the people matters… if there was a vote now, 90 per cent of the people of India would say they agree with the decision… but… we didn’t ask the people to whom this decision matters most… the Kashmiris… are they not Indians… does their opinion not matter?”
The young man turns to look at me in anguish and I keep silent. Then he says softly,
“Sometimes democracy can be ugly… today I am sad… and confused… is it okay to be this way…?”
I smile and put my hand on his shoulder.
“It’s absolutely okay to be this way… you are not just a painter… you are an artist.”
He smiles too. Just then I am informed that my flight is ready to depart. I get up and wish him goodbye. I slowly make my way towards the gate and as I do so I turn to look at the young man one more time. He is looking at me so I wave to him and he waves back.
(The writer is a filmmaker, writer, traveller and thinker)