An Afternoon

Srijoni Banerjee

Bimal realized that his past ailment had started bothering him again. A collector had come knocking at his door after several months, her face half-covered in a mask. The pandemic had begun to recede slowly. Bimal greeted her and offered a few drops of hand sanitizer. That was then followed by other rituals to make her feel welcome. Previously, guests would be first greeted with a glass of water, followed by tea and some sweets, but the pandemic changed everything. Isabel, from Spain, in her sixties, sat stiffly, sifting through Bimal’s paintings. 

His paintings have always been a blend of very bright colours, a bit unusual because the way he uses his palette is quite different from other artists. This is not his own opinion. Eminent critics have said so in several reviews. His canvas has always been a ferment of bright hues. There came a time, however, when he started losing colour. Almost twelve years ago, after his transfer to the steel foundry, colours started to fade. One’s job always affects one’s lifestyle and even one’s mind. His job was always at odds with his creative side. He was at the same time an artist and a worker in a locomotive factory. However, the new surroundings in the foundry were completely incompatible with his temperament. 

In a locomotive factory, working in a steel foundry is very different. A group of workers fettle steel casts throughout the day, covered in masks, safety goggles, and helmets. They are suffused with industrial dust, sand, the odour of huge casts and greyish fumes. Then, there are the deafening sounds of steel being beaten throughout the day, a cacophony that makes your whole body tremble. Another group is involved in creating the core with sand and mud. Soon, he felt, an invisible hand started to choke him, as something heavy started to grip his mind. After spending eight hours at the factory, when he sat down with his brush and palette, he noticed a change. Where before his palette was dominated by various bright colours — yellow, orange, vermillion red, French ultramarine, emerald green — now sepia and Payne’s grey started to take control; with a bit of permanent orange. Even the orange would have disappeared if not for the ever-burning furnace. When Bimal saw the steel melted in a huge furnace and then emptied by the ladle into a huge tub, his eyes became etched by the molten bright orange. A liquid stream of steel jumping all at once into the ladle became the tint of the whole world to him. Bimal began to observe a change in his style of painting and especially a change in his colours. 

But, lo and behold, his critics and viewers praised him for tweaking the grammar of his paintings. They feted his new phase, some said, while others loved the changed aesthetic. Only he knew that behind the paintings displayed in the gallery were several failed attempts; those paintings never made it to the wall but lay around in his studio. He did not, however, allow sepia to dominate his creative space for long. To everyone’s surprise, he decided to retire early. Even though his colleagues and friends tried to talk him out of it, he would not be persuaded. He had come to this decision after much deliberation. His paintings were in demand among private collectors and galleries. He was quite comfortable with leaving this job. A week-long trip to the hills would be just the thing to get rid of the sepia. He would conjure all his bright colours back. After leaving his job, he would embrace his new journey completely. 

But the trip never transpired and his departure from the factory was soon taken over by the rising pandemic. The market was already frail after the year 2015, and now it finally succumbed to the dance of death and panic around the globe. He stopped receiving calls and visits from his collectors. He was witnessing a rapid change in his palette. Sepia and other greyish colours dominated virtually all the space in his paintings; all his bright colours were banished! 

He had once upon a time read a line by the revolutionary poet Sukanta Bhattacharya,

Khudar rajjye prithibi goddomoy

The world turns prosaic in a nation filled with hunger.

Galleries closed down. Factories started to lay off their workers. The employers who promised them shelter and safety washed their hands of them. Migratory workers took to the road to reach their homes. Several of them lost their lives while doing so, and became mere numbers in governmental documents. Hospitals heaved with swarms of patients and the ill gasped for oxygen. Who cared for paintings or sculptures when people were dying and livelihoods lost? His only source of income was his savings. The situation started to tighten the noose around his neck. He started to ration his daily expenses. He had spent quite a large amount renovating his studio last year. From floor to roof, his studio resembled a modern gallery. Walls were adorned by his paintings and those paintings were embellished by bright lights. Nowadays, when he sat with paper, his brush went for sepia on its own. Like a skilled typist, he never glanced at his palette. His mood dictated his brush and the brush dictated the colour. He took control once the colours start moving in small streams on the paper. He often felt like a pilot whose only job is to safely land a flight after it has run its course. 

No one knows who concocted the colour sepia, but it is perhaps a mixture of three or four colours. A greyish colour, almost like our life. We often encounter such hues in our life, events smeared with bleakness. Doctors have claimed that music therapy is a proven approach to help with mental health. In a friendly gathering, Debashis Biswas, a doctor and an artist, once said that one’s mood and state of mind deeply affects the colours chosen by an artist.

Isabel had gone through his entire stack of paintings that Bimal presented in front of her, but not a single painting was resonating with her soul. Even though he was patiently presenting her with paintings which usually attract collectors, he was beginning to feel restless. Whatever she was saying sounded incomprehensible to him. His sepia-coloured paintings were sitting on the side of his studio. He had let his creative spirit run free during the lockdown. Most of these paintings were abstract and personal. He had a big window in his studio. A creeper, after taking over the entire grill, had started its journey downwards like a swing. Small birds often sat on it and moved back and forth in a rhythm. Every morning, sunlight graced his room till afternoon. However, a huge building had crept up very close to the apartment Bimal resided in. Rays of sunlight no longer played freely throughout his room but entered in narrow shafts. The same glimmer was perhaps trying to lend its radiance to those paintings in sepia. Something caught Isabel’s eye and she moved towards the stack of sepia paintings. Rifling through some, she pulled out a single canvas—it was an abstract representation of a shrivelled flower. She had found what she wanted! She turned to Bimal and pointed to the painting with a wan smile. 

“I lost my son last year. He used to love flowers.” Bimal, upon hearing this, was at loss for words. He was not sure of how he should react. Sensing his discomfort, Isabel spoke softly, “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I love to collect paintings now.” Her face was pensive and her voice grew feeble. “I used to paint once,” she said, “as the travel guidelines have relaxed, I have started visiting places around the world. The diversity of spiritual practices present in India is very intriguing to me.” She gave a slight pause as if to ensure that Bimal was actually listening. He was looking at her intently. He was trying to understand her grief and the way she was dealing with it. Grief is a very personal experience and yet very universal in nature. “Last week I visited a temple frequented by the native people of Jharkhand. The temple is housed by a deity called Pahar baba (Father of the mountains). People visit the place from far and wide. Some visit with aspirations they want to see fulfilled and some with urgency owing to an imminent peril hovering above them or their loved ones. There is another group that has already received His grace. They visit the place with goats in order to sacrifice them. I have seen people speaking up against animal sacrifice. Even I am against it. However, as I was watching those animals, lined up for sacrifice, a thought occurred to me. We are no different from these animals waiting for the knife. We go on with our lives unaware of Time waiting for us with a huge knife.” Isabel’s monologue had wandered away from his studio to the hills of Massanjor where the temple is situated. Bringing it back to the studio, she addressed Bimal, “life is like a journey similar to an artist’s creative life. Just like your paintings have bright as well as bleak colours, we have to negotiate the vicissitudes of life. Those wan colours may appear devoid of life, but they have depth, they have pain, and against them, we see the brightness of life. You appreciate light when you have shadows. Your painting reminds me of my son’s life amidst his loss. Thank you.” It was a matter of moments before Isabel paid him and took her leave. 

Bimal looked at all his paintings in wonder. The afternoon sun’s light permeated the whole space. It looked wondrous.


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