By Sakshi Rawal
Edited by Lizzie Alblas
This interview was originally in Gujarati interspersed with English. It has been translated by me. All paintings and drawings featured in this article were created by Dipak Rawal.
I recognize the hands on my screen. They are moving in slow concentric circles, with a stub of a pencil between the index finger and the thumb. My grandfather is a man who doesn’t believe in throwing things away.
“It’s habit from my childhood I think.” He muses as he sketches something on a scrap of paper. “I couldn’t afford to buy pencils or any stationary really. And after the move, we had to be extremely careful with how we spent our money. Food and shelter were the priority.”
I know the answer to this question already, having heard about it several times while his hand stroked my hair when I was young, but I ask him to tell me about the migration. A faraway look clouds his eyes. He tells me he doesn’t remember much of his home, but he remembers what it felt like. He was one of the thousands of Indians who had to move from Pakistan to India during the partition of 1947. With great difficulty, he admits that it was hard. “There were nights when we didn’t know if we would get food or where we would end up the next day. Rumours would float around of goons attacking the makeshift shelters and soldiers conducting raids.”
“I was only a boy, but I was the man of the family. I had to make arrangements and look out for everyone. There was just no time for weakness.”
The callouses on his fingers tell stories and I ask about them. He explained that most of them came from the factory. Gloves were only given to those who handled extremely dangerous chemicals and rest of the men simply had to make do. He was used to the peeling skin. “She still tries to rub coconut oil in my hands at night. She’s been doing it for ten years now.” He barks out a laugh when my grandmother chastises him.
In the background, there is a shelf nailed to the wall. It has bent under the weight of the art books carefully covered in plastic wrap. His pencil box is lying next to him, overflowing with HB pencils, bits of charcoal and eraser stubs. He had asked me if he could sketch something during our interview.
“Tell me about the books Dada.” I coax.
He reveals that they had miscellaneous origins. Some he borrowed from a library in Karachi and never returned, taking them to India with him, one of them was gifted to him by an artist who he met at an art gallery a year ago. He proudly boasts that it is a signed copy. Two of them were from a paper mart. He had to work three overnight shifts in the factory to afford those books. They costed fifty rupees back then. That’s 50 pence.
We proceed to talk about the language barrier. He admits that he couldn’t read, speak, or understand English until the age of thirty. Working in a chemical factory, he had to learn the names of the medicines produced. Reading the labels, the instructions, and formulas he was able to piece the language together bit by bit.
He ponders a little before adding “I suppose I didn’t have a choice.” India was going through a major shift. Although we had achieved independence, the country was still dealing with the aftermath of the British Raj and the consequent prevalence of the English language. My grandfather’s mother tongue is Gujarati, and he is fluent in Hindi and Marathi too. However, all of that became irrelevant. Surviving in the new India meant learning this new language. “I was so bad at it.” He jokes. “But I wanted to read the books. They were the only way I could learn drawing.” There were no art classes back then. And if there were, they were a far-off dream.
The conversation veers to his passion for art. Like many things, pursuing a hobby was a luxury my grandfather couldn’t afford. He was never able to prioritise it. He travelled for 3 hours every day to the factory and back. Whatever he earned went towards my father’s and aunt’s education and necessities for home.
“When your dad and aunt started earning a suitable income, that’s when I was finally able to give time to it.” He was relieved. He was not aware of any artists or techniques or famous artworks. He simply wanted to paint.
There was also a small group of artists who gathered at the school opposite our old house in Mumbai. They would rent a classroom and practice their craft there. “Meeting people who were passionate about the same thing as I was an incredible experience. I never knew that there was a community for art.”
I thought about this after our interview ended. Community, people. Isn’t that the fundamental basis of communication? This urge to be a part of a cohort, to be surrounded by people who encourage and support you.
During this time, in the early 2000’s, television had made its presence known in our household. They would show reruns of ‘The Joy of Painting’ at 3 o’clock every afternoon. He never missed one. It was almost like a free class for every self-taught artist. “It’s a shame I can’t find them on the TV channels anymore.”
I chuckle and inform him that the episodes are available on YouTube. A day later, my phone buzzes with a WhatsApp from him. It is a picture my grandmother has taken of him watching The Joy of Painting on the TV.
Why art? The question lingers in the air for a bit.
His reply is a thought out one. He tells me that no one’s asked him that before and he hadn’t thought about it either. Art doesn’t need qualifications. It is a language that everyone speaks. He didn’t need to be fluent in anything or have a degree or a certain level of education to appreciate it.
“Maybe I’m offending some people.” He sheepishly admits. Even when I was an inexperienced boy who had a hard time catching up with the fast-moving world around me, I always understood art. And at some level, it understood me.”
I ask him how it feels to suddenly have access to everything he was previously denied.
“There are moments when I think that I was born during the wrong time. I wish I had the opportunity to formally study what I loved. But I also know that I had responsibilities. If I didn’t fulfil them then we wouldn’t be here, me doing what I love and you doing what you love, diku. You just have to have faith in yourself I suppose, faith that you will make it.”
And as we end the interview, he tells me how proud he is of me and asks me to pick up the new set of the Staedtler pencils for him when I return.
Dipak Rawal is a self-taught artist living in Mumbai with his family. He is 80 years young and has been a creative all his life.
Dada- Affectionate term for paternal grandfather
Diku- Affectionate word for child
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