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A kaleidoscope of luminous fragments

Geeta Doctor
The Hindu, September 11, 1994

RAMESH Gandhi lives in the cool white labyrinth of a large house, fringed by casuarina trees, not far from the sea in Madras, waiting.

Philosopher, poet, sometime businessman, a photographer of distinction, whose latest exhibition sponsored by the USIS, Madras, and MRF , is an austerely beautiful collection of images and words. Ramesh Gandhi is not waiting for Godot. He knows he is Godot himself. He's known it for sometime. Ever since he twigged upon the secret of the Universe, sometime in his early twenties, in fact. He repeats it like a mantra, "The theory of contingency, and the theory of the inevitability of inevitability," he says. It's a theory that can be tested at any time, on any planet, or star in the Universe. If it sounds remarkably like a theory of Entrophy (sic), the notion that as a general rule, the Universe is headed for a sticky end, after having evolved out of messy beginning, he has not been told of it yet. The problem is that no one seems to be waiting for Ramesh Godot.

"No, I don't get any particular joy out of seeing my pictures," he says, in his deep gravelly voice. He smiles. He is, actually picking each one of the framed portraits out and looking at them as though for the first time. "Of course, as I see them, show them to you, I experience a momentary pleasure." He holds one of them against the light. Three or four blooms of brilliant pink are whirling, in a silent dance of bougainvillea, against the pale diffused background of colour so that you can almost see them fall, float in the air, defy gravity in that instant of the camera's blink.

I am a leaf Without a branch
I am a cloud Without destination

begins one of the poems that accompany the show. And he ends this lament with,

I am I am
A misplaced time
Dislocated space
A fragmented life

Gandhi is eager to hold up those fragments that constitute his life. He describes himself as an intensely emotional, precocious child, to whom the words spoken even in the most casual of circumstances, an adult scolding a servant for instance, would take on a deep personal significance. It was as though, he, himself, were responsible for every thought or action that took place around him.

I remember a time when my father had to borrow some money to buy a motorbike for my uncle. We were very poor at that time. But he bought the motorbike and he told him, "If you are killed on this motorbike, I will take the blame on myself. But if you hurt anyone else, on the road, I will flay you by your skin." Gandhi renders this in his native Gujerati. "I remember this very vividly. My father had a very, very expressive way of speaking. Much later I asked him about it and he laughed. That was only a manner of speech, he said. It did not mean that I would actually do that."

For Gandhi himself the moment of intellectual awakening took place during a similar dialogue between the child in him at the age of five of six and the father, who had taken it upon himself to be completely honest in answering his questions.

"One day I asked him if I had been consulted when I was born. He understood at once that I was not asking this because I was stupid. He thought about it and said: "No: you were not consulted." And when he saw that I could not go on because of some timidity he asked "Is there something else you want to know, do you want to go beyond?" and I must have indicated my desire to know more, he said. "It happened because of convention. because of tenderness between myself and your mother. It happened out of desire, sexuality, accident, these are all part of the reason. But no, you were not consulted." "I owe you nothing then," Gandhi said. He cries out in anger even now, "You owe me the entire burden of my unhappiness. "

It was the beginning of a long process of questioning. Gandhi maintains that while other seekers have been on the same road, he alone has persisted in going the whole hot. That is because, according to him, at some point or the other, a seeker after truth is distracted by followers, who want to distil the message and make it accessible. Even the Buddha, who went the furthest along the way, faltered, when he allowed himself to be surrounded by the Sangha. One of the portraits that Gandhi has included in this series is an image of the Buddha, head resting on one hand, his eyes shut, a carving from the Ajanta caves.

"I wanted to make it slightly ironic," says Gandhi. It was very difficult to take that picture, with my shaking hands, to keep a full five seconds exposure, because you are not allowed to use any lights." The Buddha looks serene, a slight smile around the carved lips. I cannot but exclaim that it's the Buddha who has triumphed in this encounter between the Master of Contingency and the Master of Illusion.

I know enough about knowledge now
To envy a dog his wagging tail
And offer all intelligence in exchange for it

he says at the end of one of his poems that begins, "Knowledge/Led me to the knowledge/Of its uselessness." If this was the legacy of his rationalist Father, he just as decisively rejected the beliefs of his Mother. He goes on to elaborate on how contingent religious beliefs are on the accepted notions of what is good, or honest, or noble, and how quickly they can be overturned by a change in circumstance. For all that, he is human enough to admit that even as he denied himself the consolation of religion, the need to recite a sloka, or to light a lamp, was so great, that he had to hug himself to stop his hands from striking a match to dispel the darkness. He cries out with the very words of every believer, who has defied an indifferent god, "I waited for a thunderbolt to strike me down," he says. His intensity is so genuine, that I do not dare point out the triviality of the sentiment, nor that in a sense he has already been punished, if that was what he was waiting for, by his denial of belief.

We talked instead of his need to take photographs. I imagine that they are like the lamps that he did not light. For each one of them is filled with a strange effulgence, a state of grace, that goes quite beyond the immediate object, indeed the most abstract, obscure images. the pale strands of what look like pure colour. or pure energy, are revealed to be no more than a close meditation through the eye of the camera on - wait for it - empty plastic bags bought from Grand Sweets by his wife Nancy, to carry chivda to America. Yet he has an explanation for that too. He had been left alone he says. The thought terrified him. In that instant of fragmentation, even the sight of an empty plastic bag was enough to create a moment of intense interest, no more than a diversion perhaps, and yet it remained.

A pattern is
Even if
Asymmetrical Intrinsically
An order
In chaos.

Gandhi describes how he took his first picture. The house in which they lived in Calcutta was owned by a rich Zamindar, who asked him almost as a challenge, "Can you take a photo?" It was still a very rare thing to own a camera in those days. The landlord offered him a loan of his own new camera. He was only around 14 years, but he had to prove that he could do it and he immediately went and took a picture. Nancy goes into the next room and brings that early photograph out. It looks misty and romantic, like a shot out of the "Bali Hai" sequence in the movie "South Pacific", with a young man, wearing a long kurta, a bag on one shoulder, looking for something, through a curtain of palm trees. It is cinematic in its composition. It seems to suggest a whole sequence of events that are just about to unfold. "Cinema had a great influence on me': says Gandhi. "I have had films on my mind for a long time. I enjoy the strength of the medium. Photography is just one of the outlets of this urge to communicate." He recalls how he used to tell the stories based on the films that they saw, to his school friends. There is the same narrative intensity in many of his portraits. A fragment of a horse's front hooves on a street in Washington, the carriage reflected in a crisp, sharp image by the side, conjures up an entire way of life. It does not matter that it is just a vintage horse and carriage, meant for providing tourists with a quick trot into the past, or that it was Nancy's insistence that he take a picture, that led him to make this particular selection, It talks of time past, and time present, the horse not seen, except for the hooves, made real for as long as the image lasts.

Another strange effect is captured in what looks like a blob of molten glass, that seems to have just dropped from the tip of a glass-blower's pipe, the heat cooling within the globular form like images of the planets that we have been seeing from outer space. The explanation is so banal as to make one laugh. It was taken when Gandhi's father had come to visit them one day and discarded a bunch of grapes, from which one small grape, shrivelled but still ripe, had remained in the waste basket. Gandhi had placed it on the dining table and given it a life.

This is the first time that he is exhibiting colour prints and though he claims that he has no feeling for colour, the extremes of intense glowing tones that he has managed to capture, no less than the stark intensity of some of his compositions, particularly of buildings, make each of the pictures an exploration and a discovery.

Gandhi is fond of telling stories. Since I have clearly failed to buy his philosophy, he tells me one of them. It goes something like this. "It's a fairy tale" he says, "Like all fairy tales, the hero has to cross seven seas and seven mountains before he can reach a palace where a princess is waiting for him. He crosses all the seas and mountains, but when he gets to the end of the journey, a holy man, a sadhu, is waiting for him in a hut. There is to be one more test. As he walks towards the Palace, the sadhu tells him that he will hear all sorts of voices call him to stop and turn back, but he should ignore all of them. If he turns back he becomes stone. The hero starts to walk and like he was told there are different voices that warn him to turn back. Just as he is about to reach the Palace, he hears the voice of the sadhu himself. The voice says "Well done, you can come back now, the Princess is waiting in the hut here with me."

What I have to decide is, do I listen to the voice of my guru, who is calling me, or do I ignore him and walk on?"

There is obviously no answer. But the telling of the story has been so intense, it is like watching the crystal fragments of a dream that shimmers with the force of Gandhi's imagination. It shatters when he stops talking. We are three strangers sitting in a cool white room; laws of contingency and the inevitability of inevitability are again in operation.

RG's letter to Geeta Doctor, concerning her article - September 15, 1994

See, I'm talking to you, and friendly, dear Geeta,

Entropy (there is no 'h' in it) is a measure of unavailable energy in a system. The two main schools of thought differ on its consequences but not on its notion. One group believes that all energy expended is lost and that a time may come when the universe will exist only with uniform inertness; the other believes that all the expended energy is converted all the time and therefore all energy lost in one activity or another, terrestrial or cosmic, in sum total only transfers but remains exactly the same. To illustrate the point, a mechanic who takes food uses energy to repair a car, where he expends it. The driver who drives the car spends it also, as, as a passenger you sit behind, breathe, get tense, relax, and also expend it. In the other case, however, it is speculated that in case of total entropy, time must reverse itself - in other words, again to illustrate the point, a cup which has broken falling off the table will reunite and attach its pieces, jump up the table, get filled with the tea from the mouth of the person who drank it in the first place, disappear into the kitchen, where the tea will separate into leaf and boiling water, end up in a tea garden, and so on.

The point that I'm making is that entropy is not the beginning of the universe from gooey stuff to its expiry into a messy mass, as your cavalier allusion to entropy implied. The purport of the word entropy does not run parallel to my theory of contingency and inevitability of inevitability, nor does it claim any similarity or opposition to it. Actually, even entropy, no matter how defined, is the product of the Theory of C&IofI.

As you wrote the article, you created a lot of entropy; most people who read it created some, because they did not bother too much about the usage of the word or my Theory of C&IofI. I expended a lot when I read it, and a lot more in wondering whether I should point out the error or let it pass. Then, as I write this letter, and as you will read it, a lot of entropy will be created, and, imagine, all this because of the Theory of C&IofI.

I have a feeling that you should talk to me more often, since you pick up so many new ideas to oppose.