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When Human Goodness Triumphs Above All

Monday, April 01, 2013
By Robin Shukla

Stealing Gods by Ila Pal is, reportedly, somewhat of a true story, based upon the experiences of a young feudal lord that the author met during the late sixties. While it looks at the life of the man, Pashan, it actually details the life of a simple girl drawn into the story by virtue of being married to him. Anupama is the daughter of a humble educationist, but her moral fibre stands her in good stead when Pashan states that they seemed to be mismatched. Three miscarriages have drained her of much energy, but she decides to take up studying in college. This was a girl of unsurpassed beauty that the lord had chanced to see and forthwith carried his suit to her family, which gladly entrusted her to him. Leaving her abandoned, married to a man who, after the initial conjugality, had no time for her.

Life in a haveli is described very well, with servants and hangers on, like Pashan’s right hand man, Mullick, who has his hand in the till and lines his own larder whenever he can. There is precious little that Pashan can do about all this, steeped as he himself is in the most corrupt practice of plundering priceless antiques and ancient artifacts from the countryside and selling them off to smugglers, who spirit them out of India.  

Pashan distracts him self by intimately associating with two other women, a travesty that Anupama stoically puts up with and professes indifference to. When troubles and intrigues surface and threaten, the husband is more intrigued by his wife’s kind and gentle conduct, her refusal to surrender to her reduced circumstances in his life and in the haveli.

At a recent reading of this book at Kitab Khana, the author, who is also an internationally renowned artist, interacted with us, revealing that excellence in art means excellence in painting and also writing.

How much of the artist and her need for perfection pervades in writing Stealing Gods? Or can you dissociate writing from painting?
As far as painting goes, from the time I was small I saw world in pictures -images. Even before the story is well formed and I start writing I find that I am simultaneously seeing a series of images, one image overlapping the other in quick succession and I write what I see in my mind’s eye. This has been noticed even by strangers who do not know much about me. A French author by the name of Jean Pierre Angel emailed the following message. “You create images with a very fine paint brush…the reader feels like he is seeing a film.’ While Andrea Leers, a leading architect of US wrote, “I’m reading Stealing Gods and really enjoying its window on an unfamiliar world rich in detail and colour- it has the feeling of being there with the sights and smells of some of the places I’ve visited.”                                                

In the area of research I definitely seek perfection. My chief protagonist in Stealing Gods vandalizes old temples and forts in search of ancient sculptures’ and smuggles them out of the country. Since the story is about a smuggler I want to know everything about how he goes about locating the right spots and sourcing antiquities, how he and his henchmen carry out the operations, and the areas rich in antiquities etc. Besides I spent a lot of time with a leading smuggler and his men from Benares, trying to understand them.

Your book addresses the stealing and smuggling of antiques. Many priceless artifacts surface at auctions abroad. But so do valuable (or invaluable?) paintings by India’s finest painters. But we rejoice at the high prices the paintings fetch, even though they are owned by foreigners. Any contradictions here?
 None. In the current times, paintings are primarily created for displaying and selling. More the price it fetches, happier is the artist and the agent /gallery.  What difference does it make who owns it? Also, new paintings are constantly being created by contemporary artists while one can only replicate ancient art, that too it is a bad copy. Imagine what will be left here at the rate at which we are looting our own country. Ancient art was created in the service of God, not to sell. Thus, when they surface in auctions abroad, it simply means that they have been smuggled out. Those are national treasures and should stay here.  

What would be your advice to Indian women on taking up painting or writing as a profession? Are these safe in terms of financial returns?
No profession is safe or unsafe. What matters is what one has to invest in it. One surely needs to invest more in painting; more space to work and store what you create and of course money to buy materials, etc, that is expensive.  For writing all you require is paper and pen. As far as advice goes I have none. All I would say is do what you enjoy doing the most. If your writing or painting stems from your natural talent and other factors do not step in, it is likely to be more spontaneous and hence more rewarding sooner or later.

You are one of India’s most renowned artists, and have closely interacted with the legendary MF Husain. Was the master able to unleash your own creativity and potential as a painter?
Husain made me realize what the ultimate quest of every student of art is: vision. I met him soon after finishing my Masters and within a few days went for this sketching tour with him. Till then I had not had any formal education in art. So, in a sense, the experience of working with him was like jumping many steps all at once; getting acquainted with what is vital in one’s training: hard work and being at one’s work without the nonsensical notions like inspiration, mood, etc. In Husain’s life there was no room for self-indulgence. He worked with the discipline and dedication of a true shishya. In working with him I learnt the value of hard work, tenacity and genuine humility, a hallmark of a true student.

Stealing Gods by Ila Pal
Pilgrims Publishing

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