Saturday, May 26, 2001
S T A M P E D  I M P R E S S I O N S

Artistry par excellence
Reeta Sharma

IT has taken 15 years for North Zone Cultural Centre to finally provide a platform to the artists and artisans where they can prove the worth of their skills. It was heartening to visit the Kala Gram complex located on the Chandigarh-Panchkula road, where the inaugural performances and displays were in full swing recently, thankfully without any monotonous, formal and unwarranted bureaucratic ribbon-cutting.

Even a Chandigarhian like me, who has lived in this city for 28 years, locating the entry to the Kala Gram Complex was a torturous exercise. For such a major centre of activity, there is no direct entry, thanks to the notorious rigidities and imposing attitudes of the architectural godfathers of Chandigarh. However, once inside the Complex, one is happy and thrilled to see a tiny Pragati Maidan (of New Delhi) taking shape.

On the open-air stage, folk singers of Punjab were rendering soulful Sufiana kalams. How starved people must be of cultural activity can be gauged from the fact that despite the lack of any formal announcement over a thousand people had already gathered and were listening and watching the performances spellbound. Alongside, amazing handicraft items had been displayed on aesthetically improvised platforms. Meera Thakur from Bihar, now a resident of Chandigarh and the winner of the National Award and fellowship, bewitches you with her magical work on sikki dry grass. She has an equally mesmerising smile.


Similarly, Mahavir Prasad Bondwal of Rewari, Haryana, holds out fibreglass and white-metal works magnificently shaped into candle-stands, decorative ducks, elephants, lions etc., besides innumerable household goods. You cannot escape the breathtaking weaving of fascinating chairs, room partings, hand-fans etc. by yet another National Award winner Prem Lal of Barheri village near Chandigarh. Unusually designed carpets from Panipat were another attraction.

The potter, Naresh Kumar, gave a thrilling demonstration of water flowing out of miniature teapots that he had made. Besides he had a whole range of imaginative table lamps, flowerpots, tea sets, mugs etc. In yet another corner, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru came alive through the magic of Plaster of Paris.

But I was totally dumbfounded when I entered an improvised exhibition hall which had on display more than 50 works of hand-embroidered pictures of lions in the forest, dancing peacocks, chirping birds, frisky horses and fascinating scenes from nature. Equally stunning was the information that the creations were by only one person --- and that too a man. Quite like me, even the famous Maj-Gen. Chimny had presumed that the hands behind the magical embroidery had to be of Joginder Kaur, and not Joginder Singh. So he wrote: The first prize goes to Joginder Kaur. He later asked the organisers to find the lady and congratulate her on his behalf.He was unable to hide his surprise when he was told that the artist was a man.

Though Joginder Singh Sekhon is 84 years old, he embroiders as swiftly and deftly as before. This learned, but self-declared "illiterate" man, had retired from the British Army in 1948 as a sepoy. Later, for 25 years, he worked as a record-keeper in the Indian Army. All his life, ever since he can remember, he has been embroidering for 8 to 10 hours a day. On an average, one square inch of his embroidered piece has 800 stitches. Despite a huge collection of pieces, he has never sold even one of his works. embroidery is a blessing of Ma Vaishno Devi. How can I sell it? In any case, I do not need the money. My needs are few and even these are taken care of by Waheguru in abundance. Once I needed a half-sleeve sweater and the very next day Waheguru sent me two from different directions."

The fakir- like Joginder Singh came to Mohali in 1978, when a NRI offered him his one- kanal house to live in. He remained a bachelor because there was nobody to think of his marriage. He learnt cooking because there was nobody to cook for him. He does not remember when his parents died. His maternal uncles in Sangrur brought him up. "I used to look after their cattle. While they grazed around, I would try my hand at embroidery. I had taken a fascination to this art by observing the phulkaris that were given to the brides. With time I became obsessively involved. After my retirement, I had no place of my own and these kind people offered me their home." Today he is the uncrowned trustee of the entire neighbourhood and all leave the keys of their houses with him. For baby-sitting at any hour of the day, his house is as safe as a temple with a deity like him keeping an eye. While children can be left in his safe custody, he himself cannot tell you his own phone number. His admirers have, therefore, pasted a piece of paper with his phone number on it on the cover of his spectacles.Try complimenting him on his majestic creations and he disarms you. "My work is worthless as compared to the Chinese. I often wonder how have they mastered this art? I am not even a patch on them."

Joginder Singh is not only a master embroiderer but also a matchless collector of old coins and currencies from different parts of the world. Right from Kushaan period to coins of Queen Victoria without a crown and the currency that the British used in India on their arrival, besides the German currency that was used during World War II are all a part of his collection. His collection includes 50 lakh Lira of Italy, too.

Yet another artistic medium is the creation of matchstick boxes. These works are equally mindboggling. Although he has stopped working with match boxes, he has the most engrossing stories to tell. Like a grandfather, he can keep you totally mesmerised by his fascinating secrets. " I used to stealthily burn all the matchsticks so that match boxes would be thrown out for my use. Many a times I got caught and caned. Do you know when did the match box come to our country? Do you know where were these first manufactured?"

You look at him wide-eyed. He smiles at your ignorance and reveals with a sparkle in his eyes, "These came from Philippines when the British came to India."

I am sure that Surjit Singh Barnala, primarily because he himself is a painter and a writer, recognised the unknown artist in Joginder Singh. He visited his home unannounced and spent three hours with him and his works. On his return, he promptly announced a state award of Rs 50,000 and a shawl for him. They were presented to him on Republic Day.