He had been standing there staring at that painting for more than half an hour now. There was something in it that kindled his intrigue. He couldn’t take his eyes off it. No! He couldn’t take his mind off it. It consumed him. The strokes weren’t firm at places highlighting the imperfections; not the painting’s but of the man in it. That made the painting vulnerable yet absolute. The way the man was looking at a stray dog in the painting seemed to convey so many thoughts and emotions that he lost his way inside. Those eyes conveyed so much yet revealed so little! At that moment, his thoughts raced back to a painting that turned his life upside down. A painting that broke him! No! A painting that liberated him!
She had never seen anybody so transfixed in front of a painting. She was happy at the thought that someone was so much into her painting but at the same time perplexed and anxious as to what was going through his mind. All day she had felt disappointed that her best work had gone largely unappreciated, even worse unnoticed, and then here was a man who seemed to be having a long conversation with it. Good or bad… she wanted to be a part of it. “Hello Sir… You seem to be fascinated by this painting. My name is Anna. I drew it and it is one of my personal favorites. I would be glad to help you with any questions you may have about this painting.”
He looked at her befuddled. “There are really no questions to ask.”
His voice was still and she could not sense any emotional undercurrent. “Oh... very well. So are you interested in purchasing it?”
“I am not that kind.” His answer took her by surprise and she found his tone exceedingly irritating.
“What kind are you? The one who neither has admiration or appreciation for a good painting nor respect for an artist?”
He smiled at her. “Well… if that was the case, I would have bought your painting already!”
His reply stung like truth. He was like the inner voice she had always had. How can you fix a price tag on something that is invaluable? How can you sell something that cannot and should not be sold?
“He is quite a paradox, isn’t he? And one hell of a puzzle! So dubiously deceptive yet subtly provocative!” Her thoughts were broken by his shrill voice again that echoed against the walls.
“How is that so? Do tell.” She was intrigued by his intellect and wanted to just listen. Could he see more in the painting than she had when she brought it to life? She could not digest the idea that this man could probably know and feel the picture more than her. Doesn’t that make the painting his? She was lost in a sea of thought when she heard his shrill voice echo again. This time through her mind and slowly into her heart!
“The man’s eyes are incisive but tender. His heart holds a great grief but his mind rises above it. He is a burdened man who has seen lot of pain and endured a deep loss but he knows his misery is far from over. His death would neither be quick nor easy. His body can withstand more agony but his soul has given up. He is a wise man yet has had his share of foolish acts. He is a good man now but has not been one always. His conscience writhes in remorse for a dark act that he can neither forget nor live with. But still in one dark corner deep inside, he relishes it albeit for a short while until guilt takes over and he despises himself again. He looks at the world with abandon. Age and the wisdom that comes along with it have sharpened his intellect and softened his soul. His hatred is gone and he loathes no one no more. Now he has only sympathy as he sits there watching people go past him looking so happy yet feeling so miserable inside. He smiles at himself, scorns his past, ponders his future and awaits his end. And all these moods have blended in so perfectly in this master piece of yours.” He spoke with so much happiness and passion that only a true artist could feel when he recognizes another’s work of genius.
She listened in rapturous awe to this stranger paint a picture so vivid yet so deep and mystifying about this painting of hers. She couldn’t believe that someone could understand and appreciate her painting as much or even better than her. Who is this man?
He went on not once taking his eye off the painting. “How fertile can one’s imagination be? To create a face with so much emotion! Or, perhaps, this is not a figment of your imagination but a real person… someone whom you have seen and observed several times… a mysterious stranger who kindled your curiosity so much that you couldn’t stop thinking what was beneath those deceptive eyes and opaque face… Is he happy? Is he sad? Is he a beggar who just sits on the street in hope of alms for his next meal or is he a philosopher who just loves watching people? Well... you just can’t know. So you capture him with your brush and present that intrigue in his eyes to the world.”
A stunned silence ensued. After making her fly among the clouds with his profuse flattery he had brought her crashing to the ground by suggesting that it had nothing to do with her imagination. That made her furious. “So how do you think the conception of this painting originally happened? A fiction of my imagination or a blatant replica of an unsuspecting stranger’s visage?”
He could sense the condescension in her tone. “I would say that you have seen this man. And he has disturbed you deeply!”
“How could you possibly say that? How would you know?” She was astonished by his confidence.
He stroked his beard gingerly. “The dog! There is something different about its expression. You have added emotion to its eyes. As if it is communicating with the man. Its facial strokes are much more defined and firm as opposed to the fragile strokes that have defined the man’s features. That shows disconnect between the real and the virtual!”
She sat down dejected. But then how could she have known that what she was about to hear next would forever change her life.
The man went on with his mesmerizing voice. “But a beautiful disconnect. Which is what makes this painting so unique! It transcends boundaries and renders a meaning so surreal that makes the painting a well that will never dry up. You can infer infinite meaning from the man’s eyes and every one will see it differently every time she looks at it. Look here. I am very sorry if I managed to offend you. I didn’t mean to belittle your work by any means. The fact that you painted a man you had observed doesn’t in anyway reduce the greatness of your work. In fact it makes it even more magnificent. You can imagine just about anything in your canvas of dreams. But to paint something that is so real is a gift. And trust me… the most important thing is not for others to realize the greatness of your work. It’s you who should realize that. Nothing else matters. Let me tell you a story. My story!
My father was a sculptor. A masterful craftsman! Each and every one of his creations adorn some of the the best temples in and around here. He was a very pious and devout man. So was my mother. I grew up amidst sculptures and in temples. There was God all around me. But was he really? I couldn’t tell. My father believed so. My mother told me so. There was a huge temple in front of our house. Almost all its sculptures were my father’s handiwork. I used to sit hours in front of a golden sculpture which everyone worshipped with hands folded. I recited slokas with my eyes fixated on this golden sculpture which returned my curious glances with a never changing cold stare. There was something about that gaze that I could not understand. I was not able to understand or appreciate God in the same way everyone else around me did so easily and so faithfully. I felt something was wrong with me.
I did many things during my childhood. Things that I was told to! But only one thing satiated my senses. Drawing anything that came in front of my eyes or to my mind! I grew up to be a painter. My father was a proud man. He said art was in our blood and it was God’s gift. I immersed my days and nights into drawing my mind and my thoughts. I painted them with my heart. Feelings transformed into colors. Every artist waits for his best work to take fruition. I was no exception. Every time I took the brush, a fire raged in my heart to outbest my previous work. Everybody seeks perfection. Nobody attains it. But I was tireless in my quest. I created some of my life’s best works and I had almost transcended into a different world. A world of my dreams brought to life on the canvas.
My father brought me back to reality. He came to me with a very unique request. He wanted me to paint that golden sculpture. He felt it was his master piece and wanted me to recreate it. He had never asked me anything before and I could see how much this meant to him. Unfortunately the sculpture didn’t mean anything to me. It haunted me and I had always wanted to run away from it as far as I could. But my father meant the world to me. I couldn’t say no to him.
I halfheartedly took it up. It was childhood all over again. I would sit for hours staring at that sculpture trying to feel it. You have to understand something completely before you can paint it on canvass. But those eyes… that silent yet deep gaze… they consumed me. That is the one thing I was never able to understand. I painted for a year. Yes. One full year! When I finally looked at my painting… I saw the sculpture. But there was something different. The cold stare was replaced by a gentle look. A vulnerable, earthly, human look! It was the same God… but the difference was that he was talking to me. I understood the meaning of God for the first time: Not in the way I was told… not in the way I had read… but in the way I had always wanted to… in the way I had always felt. Finally I had a faith that was my own! I locked myself up in my room and stared at this painting for hours together. My eyes finally met with God’s and they talked… for hours… for days!
This painting… which I took up so reluctantly… which I had no intention of completing… which I never understood while I was drawing it… it changed my life. It was my masterpiece. It was my revelation. It was my salvation. I was so content… so blissful… so complete… I realized I could never paint anything better. My brush’s journey was fulfilled and so was my tryst with it. I never painted again.
It doesn’t matter how your painting comes to life. What it means to you is more important to what it means to the world. Truth is not absolute. It never is. It is personal. It may mean the world to me but yet nothing to you. That painting liberated me. This painting defines you. Let it guide you!”
He reached for his pocket and took out a brush. It was worn out and had dried paint in its bristles. He gave it to her and smiled. No words were spoken. She knew what it meant. He walked away a happy man. She walked away a proud woman with a renewed purpose!
- A SHORT STORY BY RAJ