'Magic' Ajji and her Paper Animals

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Shyamalidi
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Photograph by Pooja Nayak

Artist, anti-nuclear activist and puppeteer Shyamali Khastgir feels art is a means to understand interconnections, and in this age of machines, an opportunity to create with our hands….

Shyamalidi is busy cutting strips of paper when I enter the house that has been an art space for the past few days; she is preparing for her next workshop with the children. The table is replete with giraffes, elephants, dogs, cats, fish and even the odd unknown species or two standing patiently in a sea of strips. The children call her ‘Magic Ajji’; a fold here, a snip there and a miniature paper animal is ready in less than a minute.  ‘The biggest misconception people have about art’, she says, ‘is that they think it is a decorative thing, they forget it is a means of expression.’
Daughter of renowned Bengali artist and sculptor Sudhir Khastgir, 70-year-old Shayamalidi grew up doing her art training in Tagore’s Shantiniketan in West Bengal.  Her experiences there and growing up in her father’s studio, she feels, led her to become an artist. At the Kala Bhavan in Shantiniketan, handicrafts were given as much importance as fine art painting – classes under the tree were a regular feature, and so was running around barefoot; all of which, she believes, shaped her sensibilities to nature.
Art is seeing Interconnections
Over the past many years, art has also become her medium to communicate to the children the importance of our natural surroundings and the need to preserve it. She says, ‘In most schools today, while there might be an art class, not many teachers inspire their students to let everyday experiences be integrated in their art or craft work. Even when I was learning to make Batik, say we had to make a lotus, our teacher would say “Go and look at a lotus in my garden now, and see what are the other plants around it, what are the different kinds of insects on it”…that way you start relating to seasons, and become aware of the interdependence in Nature.  You cannot just draw something to fill up the spaces…’
For instance, when she takes a class for her students and asks them to make drawings of trees or a flower, she asks them not to draw from memory.  ‘I ask them to sit in front of that flower or tree and notice all the things around… you can see birds, if they have nests, the insects around it, you wonder if they’re friendly to the flower or the tree. Then there’s the soil and its textures, how the trunk of the tree looks and feels and so on. ‘And entwined in all this,’ she believes, is the joy of observing and discovery – all of which, along with freedom, are necessary for a good creative life.’
Shayamali has also been an anti–nuclear activist since the mid–70s. ‘That was when I had gone abroad after my marriage and India tested her first nuclear device – it upset me terribly. My physicist uncle had told me about the harmful effects of nuclear radiation to humans, to animals and to our environment. After that, for a good many years I kept coming back to India and protesting against nuclear testing wherever it was possible.  I have seen what a terrible situation it is in Pokhran.’ Sometimes she takes her puppet Basundhara (meaning earth in Bengali) when she travels. Basundhara has a deformed leg, which generates a lot of interest among the children, an opening for her to talk about the harmful effects of nuclear technology.
Though her father had no political affiliations, he was anti–war. As kids, they were not allowed to accept expensive gifts from an uncle who worked in the armament factory, because he felt that it was not wholesome for a child to be exposed to the expensive gifts earned from arms and war. Even machine–cut clothes were avoided, when handmade was available – ‘You’re an artist and an artist should support another artisan’ was what her father had told her.  
Art is appreciating Life
Shayamali believes that much of art is already around us, but that with all the overemphasis on machines and media–bytes we are unable to recognize it. Thus, we miss lessons that people whose lives are entwined with nature, share with it.  ‘When I was in Baliapur in Orissa, I had a chance to observe the women who collected shells and crabs on the beaches. Observing them, I understood the true meaning of ‘Sita’ – who came from the womb of the earth. They were so deeply connected with the soul, and were so much a part of nature that it was not possible to distinguish them apart from it. Many of those women did not even own land, all they had was a small jhopdi. Collecting seashells, using them to make little trinkets and then selling them in the markets, there was so much self–reliance and dignity. They were poor, but were not begging. And when that land goes, they won’t get anything because there is no record of any ownership, because it was never needed… much like the Adivasi and his forest. Because everything in nature is for everyone to share prudently, there are no owners. So how can you take away land and people’s livelihood?’
All of this got her wondering about ‘How much do we really know about survival? With how little can we manage?’  According to Shyamalidi, the paintings, clay, paper and cloth offer a lot of scope for conveying these ideas in an interesting manner. Art is one way to sensitize people, for it is important to know about people who are experimenting and trying to live in different meaningful ways even though their contexts may be different.
Art is Compassion
Her favourite material is clay. ‘Art has a meditative quality, one needs to really delve into the material to create something. You need to concentrate; if you do not, the pot might just break, become misshapen or not be strong enough. You can sit for hours by yourself and watch the pot ‘become’ in front of your eyes. People may find it boring, but it is such a rich experience.  And it is the same with the charkha, or a musical instrument, you really need to involve yourself with it.  If we all learn to engage ourselves with art, we won’t feel helpless or depressed.’
She asks children to use only waste paper while making puppets. Making paper puppets is just an excuse to talk to them and to convey so many things, for she finds that art creates a space where people become receptive. Once when she was talking about junk food through puppets, all the children there said that they loved their chips, their colas, pizzas and their bhujias.  But one parent told her later that her child didn’t eat chips for a very long time – “Because we had the puppets talking about how most of these readymade foods were bad for their health.”
Children, she feels, understand deeply, and the younger they are, the more intuitive.  In her opinion, though Santiniketan has become touristy – which is not good for a creative soul – she believes that it is in some ways, better than most other places for children to grow up in… it is still a community, people know each other, there are classes under the tree and Tagore songs are always in the air.  For when people come with respect, with a sense of learning, then it is nourishing even for artists.
She adds, ‘The real test though is fostering an understanding in the educated people about how they can live simple lives, respect handicrafts, support cottage industries, and preserve that wisdom from vanishing forever.’

 

Shyamali Khastgir is a writer, an artist and activist. She lives in Santiniketan.