A Brush with Rebellion
Armeen Kapadia is a writer, designer and an artist living in Pune, India. After practicing visual arts for several years, she was drawn to writing. Armeen is also one of the founders of Steta, a writing and language consultancy. "A Brush With Rebellion" is the first of her short stories to be published.
"Is that goat eating a tire?" Mum asked, as we tried to locate the art class.
"Looks like it," I replied, watching the tall, black goat with lanky locks of hair as it was chewing a bicycle tire. It seemed to be in a meditative state, its glazed eyes fixed on something in the distance. We had come to find the art class, the first in a line of many for me.
By the time I was in middle school, my parents and I had come to the same conclusion. I was pretty lousy at the Sciences and Mathematics. I tolerated History and Geography. My only real loves were English and Drawing. I actually did not weep the night before the English exam. I read Wordsworth for fun. Art, Drawing or A-Perfect-Waste-Of-Time, as many people would call it, was not even a subject at my school, yet I practiced it all the time. On Sunday afternoons while the world slept, I covered sheets of paper with mountains, jungles, roads and disproportionate people. The pages of my Math and Chemistry textbooks (my sworn enemies) were covered in little doodles. These drawings were not of flowers, hearts, or ribbons, the usual candidates to adorn teenage girls' books. These drawings were of daggers dripping blood, witches stirring cauldrons, and pistols firing bullets at will. It's amazing how drawing reflects the deep subconscious. The evening before my Physics exam, Mum came to my desk expecting to find me deep in the world of velocity and electricity. I was deep, so deep into 'Chapter 13: Electromagnetism', that I had covered two pages with ice-cream cones. They dripped cream and berries all over the definitions and problems, which was a mighty big improvement on the subject, according to me. Mum sighed, shook her head and left the room. I thought I was in trouble, but instead she enrolled me for an art class. On the first Saturday of the summer vacation, I sharpened my soft lead pencils, packed my erasers, and we headed to Mr. Thakur's Art Academy.
There was no clear address for this academy, except that he had told mum, "Come to Mobos Hotel." Mobos Hotel was a massive, colonial building in the middle of a large, dusty compound. No one knew who owned it, though it was prime property. It had once been a grand and graceful mansion. Like most historic buildings in the country, it was treated with such affection that it was spat upon, broken, vandalized, and stolen from. It was home to bats, filth, an outsized Peepal tree on the roof and desperate Government notaries looking to make a quick buck. Many enterprising individuals had built little tin sheds lining the edge of the compound. The entire place looked like a ruined palace, surrounded by a line of slums. These were small rooms, measuring 12x12 feet, created by driving tin sheets into the earth so that they stood upright, and plonking another tin sheet on top. Mum and I walked along this line of sheds, passing a motorbike repair shop, where we saw the tire-chewing goat, a wada-pav seller frying mashed potatoes in a huge vat of smoking oil, and a signboard painter. We then saw the sign for Mr. Thakur's Art Academy. We entered through a doorway (I don't think there was an actual door). Inside, three walls of the room were lined with wooden tables, at which students sat on high, paint-stained stools. Tube-lights lit up the darkened, windowless space.
Mr. Thakur was a tiny, dapper individual with a severe expression. He looked more like a Math teacher than an art teacher. Mum introduced the two of us and left. I was alone for the next two hours. Mr. T sat me down on a stool, and had a cursory glance through my sketchbook. At that point I was going through my 'dog phase', and the pages were covered with canines ranging from obese puppies to regal Great Danes, with their tongues hanging out. Several of the smaller dogs looked like rodents, and the larger ones resembled weak-spirited horses. Mr. T realized that he needed to channel my skill. He opened an ancient book, and told me to replicate the watercolor rose on page eight. I stared at it, admiring the glowing petals, wondering how the hell to start. He demonstrated how to use the paintbrush, with just the right amount of water and color. He then left me. After half an hour I had completed a rose that looked like an elephant had sat on it. He glanced at it and told me to move onto lilies. Over the next few weeks I realized that this was his way of teaching. He never said a word about anyone's work, unless it was particularly bad, and then he just grunted and put you to an easier task. He never commented, or critiqued; he taught purely by practice. That is, making us practice while he fed the goats. Feeding goats was his life's true passion. An abundant flock of goats roamed the compound, munching garbage, discarded law documents, and rubber tires from the neighbors. Mr. T brought bunches of fresh leaves with him every morning, when he puttered in on his moped. During the course of the day he held these out to the goats, some of them as tall as him, and they munched happily. They often stood in the middle of the shed, chewing, while everyone painted around them.
After six months of 'painting for fun,' he made me start preparing for the Intermediate Art Exam. This was an invention of the Government, specially designed to suck any joy out of art. The exam was compulsory for idiots like myself who were determined to go to art school and die penniless and frustrated. For this art exam, I had to practice painting Still Life (jugs, bottles, crockery), Nature Drawing (flowers and vegetables), and Geometry (Math was back to haunt me). It was then that I realized Mr. T's strength. He was the only teacher tenacious enough to make students practice such a dull syllabus without throwing themselves off a bridge. Thanks to him, when I look at anything, even today, I see only shadow, highlights, and mid tones. He made me, and a bunch of others, pass the exam and got us started in our artistic careers. Besides the basics of painting, I learned valuable life lessons, such as don't leave your paintbrushes in water, it ruins the bristles; sitting on a hard stool is the best way to stay awake and develop a back ache; paper, once dampened, changes its nature forever; goats smell funny; and there's no cheating in art. Mr. T's Art Academy attracted many students, probably because of his reticent nature. He later moved from the goat-shed to a large, airy room on the first floor of a solid, safe building, and I was happy he was progressing. He looked sad however, as there were no goats to feed there.
After the Intermediate Art Exam, I had no art teacher because I had to buckle down and study complete nonsense, such as force equals mass time acceleration and how to prepare nitric acid, among other things. I often wondered if this information would ever help me later in life. Why would I need to make nitric acid? To mix my drinks with? To wash my hair? I really want to know how many women are bubbling nitric acid on their kitchen stoves, as we speak. Nevertheless, I had to pass high school to attend Art College. It wasn't like the old days when artists simply had to cut off their ears to be taken seriously. They really had it easy back then.
By class twelve I had experienced enough of the mind-numbing nature of 'typical' education. If I had to spend years sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher drone on about fractions, or medieval Europe, I would not only cut off my ear but most likely my entire head, and the rest of me would still be fidgeting. My parents thought it would be good for me to brush up on my art skills, since it was becoming obvious that art was my only ticket to making something of myself. They engaged the services of Mr. Patil.
If Mr. T had been a man of few words, Mr. Patil was a man of whispered words. He was a stocky, middle-aged individual, with intense, soulful eyes, and a moustache that looked like a hog-hair brush that had been permanently stiffened in a jar of turpentine. The loudest he ever spoke was ten decibels. Often, he seemed to be talking to the paintbrushes or paper. I had to lean forward, and I quickly learned to lip read. I soon realized why he spoke so softly. It was because his work spoke for itself. Mr. Patil had an insane amount of talent. If people tell you magic doesn't exist, they are wrong. Mr. Patil could take a sheet of paper, water, brushes, and color, and create a vision out of the top of his head. And he made it look effortless. He was so engrossed in painting he let his tea go ice cold, and a couple of times he dipped his paintbrush in the teacup, staining it purple or green. Before I could warn him, he gulped down his paint-tea, proving that artists do really eat their materials to stay alive. Under his tutelage, I learned real sensitivity to watercolor and the importance of speaking loudly. He encouraged me to consider the Fine Arts, instead of Applied Art, which I was dead set upon. For a while I was charmed by the idea of being the temperamental artist, ripping canvasses apart, throwing ink on my enemies, painting the walls red, tattooing 'fuck you' on my forehead, and being angst-ridden and starving. But Applied Art held the promise of a regular income—even if it meant being a corporate slave, doing seven hundred logos overnight for picky clients, drinking raw vodka for breakfast and pimping out my dreams—and I was ready for it, though I wavered a few times. A few weeks before leaving for Mumbai to join the Art Institute, my parents and I decided to visit Mr. Patil at his home, which doubled up as permanent exhibit of his works. He lived with his wife and young daughter on the ground floor of a run-down building. Huge canvasses that were worthy of being auctioned in Paris or New York adorned the walls, all unsold. I immediately knew that my decision to stick with Applied Art was the right one. I might be forced to design packaging graphics for cancerous cigarettes or artery-clogging fast food. But that was still less soul-sucking than watching my art die slowly on the walls around me.
At the Art Institute in Mumbai, there were a variety of art teachers. But there was only one who not only honed your talent, but also forged your character. If Mr. T had taught by drill, and Mr. P by inspiring, then Mr. S taught by pure, unadulterated terror. I still dare not disclose his name for fear that he may find and behead me. Mr. S was in charge of most of our classes in third year. He was very short, in keeping with the stature of most dictators and tyrants. He had a bushy moustache, an unkempt mop of hair, and wore crushed old shirts and baggy pants. We soon found out that he was notoriously bad-tempered. We christened him Bengal Tiger because of his uncanny resemblance to that animal. He was dangerous when peaceful, and life threatening when provoked, and there was no knowing what provoked him. They say the eye of the tiger can focus on prey from a great distance, and Bengal Tiger's eyes tore through us every morning. According to him there was only one road to becoming an artist. The road of pain, constant work, and no food, water or breathing. On the first weekend he commanded we return with one hundred sketches on Monday. They had to be 'good.' We were expected to go to the railway station, stand atop a traffic signal, or hang upside down from trees to capture life around us. This sketching assignment was in addition to the assignments other professors had dumped on us, such as paint a realistic frog, design a wine bottle label, and take two hundred photographs of things that look like the letter A. The rest of the world, for some strange reason, thinks of art as 'fun,' 'easy,' and 'relaxing.' Hard labor camps were more fun. Come Monday we would have to show him our sketches. He would discard at least fifty, calling them lifeless, and us hopeless. Often he flung sheets straight out of the door, where they fluttered down to the overjoyed rag pickers on the road six floors below. On Monday everyone had red eyes, from two sleepless nights, forty cups of coffee, and copious weeping. In class he prowled between the benches, on the hunt for erasers. It was his belief that an artist did not use an eraser. You either drew the perfect line, or you died trying. If he saw an eraser anywhere, it was flung right out of the window. The mango tree outside now blossomed with erasers.
Besides all things art, Tiger was a stickler for the rules. One morning several students crawled in at 9:01 a.m. instead of 9 a.m. He marked the entire class absent, stating that factory workers lost an entire day's pay if they were a second late. Due to his very prickly nature, it was natural for students to gravitate towards the subject of Photography, which was taught by a very mild, young professor. He was so kind and helpless; we named him Vini the Pooh. Like all big and dangerous cats, the Tiger had excellent instincts and sensed that the masses were now hanging out in the dark room, while only six of us hard-core lovers of illustration (me included), were willing to undergo torture in the classroom. He became insanely jealous, not of Vini the Pooh, but of Photography in general. He growled on about how any idiot could shoot from a camera, and how illustration truly needed observation and imagination. I was afraid he would maul the other professor, but instead he only gave the photography fan club a three hour lecture.
It was mandatory for all students to show their work in progress to the professor at least once a day. Normally, we didn't think twice about this. You shoved your paper under the professor's nose, ignored their comments, and shuffled back to your seat where you could continue talking about the cute guy on the second floor, or the new movie playing in town, or what to snack on in the break. But with the Tiger, we had to first screw up the courage to approach the desk. It was like placing your head between the bars of a tiger's cage. With one swipe of his paw he could rip your self-esteem right out of you for life. At least none of us ran the danger of developing artists' egos.
But terror can only rule for so long. It gives way to indifference, as the victims' skins thicken, and then rebellion, as they develop claws of their own. All dictatorships are overthrown. Towards the end of the first term, we had moved into indifference mode. We still did a hundred sketches on weekends, but we didn't care for their quality. By the middle of the second term, we were firmly entrenched in rebellion mode. Now we only did twenty sketches and laughed when he discarded eighteen. We developed the skins of armadillos. We came late to class and waved our cameras in front of him. Weren't all great artists rebels? Picasso had numerous wives. Van Gogh cut off his ear. Gauguin lived with Tahitian concubines. Closer to home, MF Hussain walked barefoot in five-star hotels. I too was burning with the desire to do something reckless. I toyed between dying my hair blue, piercing my eyebrow, or dropping out of college altogether. But none of these seemed soul satisfying. The hair color would fade, people were piercing more delicate body parts than their eyebrows, and quitting college meant I was a coward, escaping self-imposed torture. And as everyone knows, it is only years of torture that make an artist.
One lazy afternoon, there were very few of us in class. Many students were dozing in the library, while others were smoking in the bathroom. Tiger left the classroom to groom his coat, or hunt for hapless students; we never knew which. They say that everyday objects inspire art, and on that afternoon occurred my first, and perhaps only, great moment of inspiration. I saw Bengal Tiger's spectacles on the teacher's table. Every day they perched on his nose, and he frowned fiercely through them at all of us, as we squirmed under his glare. My friend Siddhi and I looked at the spectacles, and we had the same thought. I knew that this was my moment; this would be my grand act of rebellion. I moved quickly, as if possessed. I acquired a new confidence that I didn't even know I had. I walked to the table, took them into my hand with a casual sweep, walked back to my desk and dropped them into my bag. Besides Siddhi, who was grinning like a monkey, no one had noticed anything. I was an official rebel, and I had a witness too. I was breathless and exhilarated. If I had known that evil felt so delightful, I would have embarked on a criminal career a long time back. It was my first solo prank. Bengal Tiger returned after fifteen minutes, and we tried to act normal, though inside we were bubbling with glee. He didn't notice his spectacles were missing until half an hour later when he wanted to read. He looked around his desk, lifting papers and books, he felt in his pockets, opened drawers, checked the class cupboard and looked over his desk again. After five minutes of this he grew restive and even peeked in the dustbin. He then abruptly left the room, muttering to himself. I sniggered with the satisfaction of a newborn criminal. Tiger soon returned to the classroom with Vini the Pooh, who proceeded to hunt high and low. I had underestimated the impact of my actions. For the first time ever, I saw a shadow of desperation on the Tiger's face. It was the same sad and helpless look we had had on our faces all year, even in our sleep. It was as if the spectacles were very important; he couldn't function without them. I felt a very tiny point of guilt prick me somewhere in my stomach, and told it to get lost. I had to harden myself.
Class ended, and we were at the bus stop. I started feeling fluttery about the spectacles at the bottom of my bag under my poster paints and lunch box. There was a bright green dustbin at the bus stop. I told Siddhi we should throw them away. A good criminal gets rid of evidence quickly. Carrying it around would somehow attract suspicion. Siddhi told me to shut up and hold onto them; we could use them. For what, I asked. They were spectacles, we couldn't exactly hold anyone at gun-point with them. Siddhi reminded me of the many weekends we had sacrificed to sketching, the countless re-dos, the endless drawing from life, the scathing remarks, and told me I had a duty to exact revenge. Besides, what if someone from college spotted them in the dustbin, which would not be cleared until the next morning? It would open a whole Pandora's box. Her speech fired me up for the evening, and we went home.
The next day Bengal Tiger was not himself. He barely blinked when ten girls were late. He didn't throw a single paper or eraser out of the door. He didn't ask to see our work. When he actually sent students to the Photography Studio, it was obvious something was very wrong. He looked around the class cupboard again, with a wan, glazed expression on his face, like a little boy who has lost his mother in the crowd. The pinprick of guilt that poked me earlier had now grown into a massive boulder that rested on my shoulders, happy to have found a victim in me. In the lunch break I could no longer bear it. In spite of Siddhi's protests, I sought out Vini the Pooh in a corner of the canteen, and confessed my sins. I told him it started as a harmless prank, and I had no idea it would have such an effect on the Tiger. He looked surprised and then giggled. When I told him I wanted to return the spectacles, he roared with laughter. There is nothing more hilarious and pathetic than an unprofessional criminal. Vini the Pooh explained that the spectacles were a gift from the Tiger's wife who lived in a distant city. He was very attached to them and didn't have the money for a spare pair. Vini then gave me some idea of their monthly salary. At that point the boulder of guilt doubled in size and crushed me to pieces. Vini offered a solution. He would put the spectacles back in the class cupboard when no one was around and then pretend to come upon them later. I handed him the black spectacle case, thanked him, and almost cried with relief. He went upstairs, his back pocket bulging.
After lunch everyone was back in class by Tiger's orders. We were to complete surreal illustration assignment no. 2. Vini's acting talents would be tested before a full audience. He walked to the cupboard, nonchalant. I watched him, my heart thumping. If he wanted, he could turn me in. He pretended to look for some paper. With his back to the class, and his head deep between the shelves, it was all very convincing. The cupboard door shielded him from the Tiger's view. Vini exclaimed, "Look what's here!" and produced the evil spectacle case. Bengal Tiger was overjoyed; he jumped up and gamboled over to the cupboard, purring. He was also mystified as to why he hadn't found it earlier. Vini told him that searching for something with a tensed mind never worked, and besides, he needed to wear his glasses to see well! The Tiger thumped his back, wiped his spectacles and donned them. He looked as happy and relieved as if someone had given him his eyes back. Within moments he returned to his former tyrant self, and roared orders to stop wasting our lives and get cracking.
I was pleased to see him back to his normal, cactus-like behavior. If you're used to a violent-tempered beast snapping and growling all the time, it's impossible to adjust to a more normal, kind creature. I had also quenched my thirst for rebellion; I decided I didn't have the stomach for it. True rebels, like true artists, are born, not made. For the first time that weekend, I was happy to do the hundred sketches. A life of crime was definitely over-rated.