Song of the Winged Bird: Gogi Saroj Pal

Meeting Gogi Saroj Pal is a new experience each time. For here is a visual artist, who in her creative span of over four decades in the Captial city of New Delhi, never been afraid of change. But it is not change for change's sake. She has the courage to reinvent herself as an artist yet all through her work there is a connecting chain born out of deep meditation and riyaz as the music. But each note of the raga that she has been singing has something fresh to offer. Her's is the not of the much celebrated nightingale or the cuckoo bird. It is the every day morning song of the sparrow, which twitters on the tree in the backyard, perches on the frail branch, swings on the clothesline and rests for a while on the fence. Perhaps it was said of Gogi: “Be as a bird perched on a frail branch that she feels bending beneath her, still she sings away all the same, knowing she has wings.” The winged bird called Gogi has been showing regularly and participating in artists' workshops, and camps. She works in several media including oil, gouache, ceramics, weaving, graphics and installations. The iconography of woman is an important feature of Gogi Saroj Pal's work and her images are not devoid of context and she casts a spell by interweaving reality with fantasy and myth. The status of women in society and nuances of their degradation find reflection in her work. Today she is counted among the leading and pioneering artists,who has given a new vocabulary to contemporary Indian art. Excerpts from an interview by Nirupama Dutt with Gogi Saroj Pal:

What are the memories of your childhood and how did these shape your dream to be an artist?

Childhood was very rich and I grew up in an environment charged with a revolutionary spirit. Our country had just about gained its freedom. My father Dharam Pal and uncle Yash Pal were associated with Bhagat Singh and Bharat Naujawan Sabha. The spirit was one of changing the old order for something new. A lot of stress was laid on education and my grandmother Prem Devi, who was a school teacher at Lahore in 1901, after the infamous earthquake in Kangra, was an enlightened and aware woman. My father was from hilly area of Kangra, my mother was a Punjabi and my childhood was spent in different places in Uttar Pradesh where my father worked in sugar mills. The house would be full with brothers, sisters and cousins. I recall once a certain part of the mill complex was being paved with cement and we young ones went there and engraved our aim on it. In our innocence we wrote 'Ham amar hona chahate hain' (We want to be immortal).I laugh when I think about it. We did not know what greatness or immortality was but yet we yearned for it, hearing perhaps the stories of people who laid down their lives in the struggle for the country's Independence.

Did you find yourself a little different from your siblings and was the artist in you expressing her identity even then?

The road to art is a long one and I will not say that I knew there was an artist in me then. But what I do know is that there was in me a strong sense of curiosity. I was an inquisitive and somewhat stubborn child and never at rest until I had found a satisfying answer to my queries. This inquisitive nature of mine was to follow me to the art college where I would be in argument with my teachers when it came to following the beaten track. Yes, in my childhood I found my grandmother showing a lot of patience in addressing the doubts and fears that are a part of a child's world.

Was the decision to take up art as a profession entirely your own or did your family play a part in it?

I have told you that I was a stubborn girl and as I grew older, I found myself different from other girls around me. I was not interested in clothes, make-up or boys for that matter. My cousins and sisters sniggered at me but somewhere I knew what I wanted. I would wear a skirt because that was a convenient dress that did not get dirty too soon, canvas shoes were fine for my feet and a face scrubbed well with soap was all the make-up I needed. I sought company of mature people wanting to learn and know more. The decision to be an artist was entirely my own. The creative search was budding in my heart. With my uncle being a very famous writer, I was exposed to the literary world. However, I picked up the brush instead of the pen because I wanted to do things my way. My family was very uncertain about my future as an artist for in those times there were few takers of art and the woman artist had yet to make her presence felt. But there was always a hathyogini in me. The road to art was long, sometimes lonely and sometimes difficult but an adventurous spirit was mine and I did find my way through the chaos to express myself in art. I was aware that I should be properly schooled in art and should know the tools of the line that I had chosen well. I studied art for two years in Vanasthali and then moved for a full graduate course in College of Art at Lucknow. But I felt I still needed to know more and I wanted no short-cuts so I added a post-graduate course at the College of Art at Delhi. Sometimes people would laugh that I had spent so many years on education alone but I knew what I wanted and was not afraid of working hard to achieve it.

You came as a slip of a girl in a skirt and canvas shoes, dragging your attaché case at the Delhi bus stand to be one of the teeming crowds was back in 1968. It must have been quite a task to establish your identity as an artist in the rather harsh Capital city?

I chose Delhi because I felt that I would be exposed to more art here than in a smaller town. I realised that in a country that had centuries-old tradition of art and craft, the lot of the contemporary artist was not all that easy. When I descended on the art scene, Western derived contemporary Indian Art had already reached its peak. It was time for introspection that what direction should my art take. Art is all about telling your story in your own language. At the both conscious and subconscious levels I started to search and imbibe in the Indian contemporary art, inspirations from indigenous imagery, both textual and visual. There were not many to notice me or pay heed to my heed to my point of view. However, I had full faith in my convictions and I followed my own path. I began to evolve my own creative visual imagery on what it meant to be a woman in the larger sense. I was taking steps to paint the universal woman or eternal feminine impulse. The figure was of course of the Indian woman who lives close to earth, takes life as it comes, keeps her concerns and convictions to herself and yet survives and the world continues in her continuity.

Gogi, now that you have come a long way and are acknowledged as an artist who has re-imaged woman and it is said that your paintings would be a source for knowing the condition of Indian woman in our times, what do you feel about your work?

I continue my great adventure in painting. I was never afraid to re-invent or begin all over again. My oil paintings on canvas were being appreciated but I felt that I required another medium that would give more fluidity to my forms and sharpness to the colours that I was using. I wanted a more expressive medium and so I moved to gouache on paper even though there were many apprehensions by others. Also paper was in my lap and painting this became a more womanly act as I explored and nurtured it as one would a child. I have also explored other mediums like weaving, ceramics, stuffed dolls and installation. My life and cultural identity carve the directions of my expression. I continue to create visual symbols and icons that have a direct reference to our times. Thus from one thematic series to another be it the Anandit Nayika, Kamdhenu, Aag ka Dariya, All the Flowers are for You or more recently Nati Binodini. At this state in life, I am more focused. The more you accomplish, the more you want to do. I feel that I made a choice to live an artist's life and I am content for this was the only way of life for me.

You have encountered much pain in your personal life including the loss of dearest ones and a number of serious illnesses. Has your art helped you overcome them?

Pain and loss are a part of human existence. What matters is that how well you bear them. A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song. During the recent struggle with having the hip joint replaced and the muscles not able to cope and thus leaving incapacitated for a long time and in excruciating pain, my art did come to my rescue. Seeing me work on a painting and knowing the pain I was going through, a doctor commented, 'You must be a very religious person.' Well if art be considered religion, I am a very religious person. When I paint, I do not feel the pain. My body ceases to exist. Painting Kinnari once again with the multiple images that I call the Kinnari Mantra were an act of meditation for me in which the mind was able to overcome the pain of the body. For a while the sparrow or the Kinnari limped but then she was flying. Mentally I was not bed-ridden. Freedom is a mental condition and so I could fly and so did my images.

What kind of a relationship have you shared with your partner and co-traveller in the journey of art, Ved Nayar the renowned sculptor and painter?

Both Ved and I appreciated each other's work even before we came together. Our relationship was based on very close understanding of each other and I can say while we share common concerns our way of handling colour, form and materials is very different. Our thought process and creative process too is different so our works complement each other.

As a child you wanted to achieve immortality. Do you feel you have succeeded in realizing this dream?

Ha! (she laughs). Today the meaning of immortality lies in mortality, that is living and creating. Well, so I am immortal in the image of the eternal woman carrying her existence across the river of fire or taking on many roles as Nati Binodini.

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Poetry is a way of life for Nirupama Dutt and some of it gets translated into words. Her poems are lived experience and she tries to touch the infinite through the finite in a contemporary version of the Sufi tradition of Punjab. She is a senior journalist and has worked with many newspapers for last many years.