Medieval poet Kabir has always been very close to artist Santosh Verma’s heart. He was born in 1956 in the Matigaon village near Varanasi. His father was a great devotee of Kabir. Verma has even named his son after the poet. Kabir has completely sunk in his psyche. He has also felt spiritually drawn to Kabir’s village Lahartara. The couplets of Kabir, who was born into a family of weavers, are quite simple at one level but on another level quite complex. Kabir becomes our contemporary when we set out to understand Verma’s art and his abstracts. The Kabir who can come up with a sharp commentary on a manipulative society can also convey a profound message on love through his singular couplets. For Verma the influence of Kabir is not a subject of research; he has always been in his life, on his tongue, has remained embedded deep in his art.
Verma spent the first 13 years of his life in his village. His loneliness and patience were the key aspects of this early phase. His elder brother was far too elderly – almost a father figure. While his companions enjoyed the raucous spontaneity of childhood, Verma would spend time in the garden during summer afternoons to reflect over and make sense of his loneliness. This experience has a decisive significance for Verma’s art and his characteristic abstracts. Little patches of sunlight on the ground of the dense garden led to a magical game of light and shade!
Kabir’s couplet quoted above speaks of patience. As a child Verma would shun his playmates indulging in horseplay and would sit with his fishing rod, patiently waiting for the fish to take the bait. He had only two passions – swimming and fishing with a lot of patience. One day he landed such a big fish that it was impossible for a child like him to pull it out single-handed. A passing gypsy helped him out. But whereas Verma considered his landing a big fish a great achievement, the gypsy was keen on taking it home to cook. He left the child with his mother and took away the fish. But then returned one day and handed him a little tambourine made of that fish’s skin.
It is indeed a joy to understand Verma’s mature art of today through the medium of such reminiscences. Verma’s art is entirely devoid of any western sources. Painters like Gaitonde and Ambadas were his favourites since their abstracts are firmly rooted in the Indian earth.
A couple of years ago I was wandering in the maze of giant canvases carrying contemporary American abstracts spread across many large halls of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. On the way out, near the exit, I saw a small room and suddenly noticed a medium-sized canvas of Gaitonde which was a pleasant shock. That was the Indian earth of abstract art.
I have been seeing Verma’s abstracts since their inception and have been his admirer. He has kept himself away from the promotional tricks and gimmickry of Modern Art. In his village school the team of inspectors was astonished to see his drawings on the school walls. He received his art education in Varanasi and was once left speechless on seeing, at an exhibition, an abstract in black done by Jeram Patel. This experience changed the entire course of his life. However, patience is the basic element of Verma’s art.
At the 1992 Biennale at Bharat Bhavan when eminent artists like Ghulam Rasool Santosh gave an award to Verma’s abstract watercolour, he finally seemed to have found his path. Initially he explored his unique imagination in black and white but he had an uncanny ability to play with colours as well. Ghulam Rasool Santosh was a master of colour and he inspired the young artist to struggle not with ten or twenty canvases but with hundreds of them.
The amazing use of brown (whether light or dark) and green colours in the works in Verma’s latest exhibition particularly impressed me. One has to enter this world with patience. To put it in Kabir’s words, “The fruit of life come on its own time.”