The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, May 27, 2001

The saviour of primeval folk art
Usha Bande

IT IS one thing to eulogise art, folk-art and folk culture, and yet another to dedicate your life to the preservation of the rich and rare cultural heritage. Yashodhar Mathpal belongs to the latter category of dedicated and selfless lovers of art. With only his vision and invincible spirit by his side, he embarked on a venture which today has flowered into the Folk Culture Museum in Bhimtal. It is a one-man show and he runs it without accepting any aid either from the government or from any individual. The museum houses more than 700 stone implements of prehistoric period, collected and classified by Mathpal himself, old fossils, pottery and bricks recovered from prehistoric excavation sites, dozens of woodwork specimen from Kumaoni region, and other folk and tribal crafts. There are also rare manuscripts, which are the pride of his collection.

"A Traditional Painter of Uttarakhand" by Dr Y. MathpalClad in white khadi, with a cotton sling-bag on his shoulder and wearing chappals he may, at best, be mistaken for a rustic. But once one talks to him, one is impressed by his scholarly approach to art. He is a familiar figure at various national and international conferences on Indian art and culture. His study of art is both intensive and extensive. An artist himself, he can reveal the soul of art in an uncanny manner. A diploma-holder in fine arts from Lucknow Arts College, a first class Masters degree-holder in drawing and painting; his interest in archaeology took him to Pune where he worked towards his Ph.D in Archaeology. He has authored eight books and more than 175 of his papers have been published in reputed journals and magazines. He has held exhibitions of his paintings in France, Italy, Portugal, England and Australia and in more than a dozen places in India. Mathpal has also attended more than a dozen international conferences on art and culture abroad, besides numerous national seminars and conferences in India.


Mathpalís success did not come easy. He did not get things on the proverbial platter. He had to struggle, and struggle hard. He was unemployed for long periods, often without response from the government or from organisations of arts, he had to knock on doors to get himself heard. His life is a saga of persistence, perseverance and patience. An inveterate Gandhian, he is moved by two English poems: Lead Kindly Light and Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth. He believes that God will lead him to his goal and that with persistent efforts anything can be achieved. "And I have experienced both," he says.

Mathpal, in his early sixties now, was born in a small village, Naula, in Almorah district. "Life was simple and uncomplicated then," he reminiscences, "and I was brought up in the typical village atmosphere. My father, a follower of Gandhi, was a social worker. He founded a school in our village and expected me to work for the cause of education."

Asked if he had followed his fatherís, injunctions, Mathpal says, "Yes, till 1973. When I learnt about the cave paintings of Bhimbetka, I could no longer stay in the village. I just resigned my job and set out to join the Deccan College of the University of Pune."

Yashodhar Mathpalís artistic talents came to the fore when, as a child, he had to assist his uncle, an astrologer, in drawing horoscopes and illustrating almanacs. Later, he went to Lucknow to study art. He also studied Gandhian thought. Scanty resources at home, his fatherís nationalist idealism and exposure to Gandhian philosophy taught him austerity and simplicity. "That made my sadhana possible," he quips. After obtaining his Masters degree in fine arts, Mathpal came back to his village and started teaching in the school founded by his father. There were moments when he lost faith in art and doubted its efficacy in life. He becomes nostalgic when he talks of those days, "I honour the Bhagavadgita and the national flag. There were times when frustrated and disillusioned, I would keep these two symbols of India in front of me and contemplate on the significance of art in human life."

His doubts were cleared when in 1973 he read a magazine article on the rock paintings of Bhimbetka near Bhopal in M.P. He resigned his job and with the few hundred rupees he had saved, went to Pune to obtain his Ph.D. in Archaeology on Bhimbetka rock-paintings. While in Pune he met some eminent scholars in the field such as Erwin Neumayer, W.J. Mulvaney, Prof V.N. Mishra, B.B. Lal and Dr Sankaliya.

Mathpal studied and reproduced the rock painting of Bhimbetka laboriously. He discovered that primeval drawings often tell stories of the lives of our ancestors who painted these exquisite designs. He has converted his drawings into glossy picture-postcards, to bring out the depth of the ancient art. He hands you a couple of these cards and eloquently explains the lines and curves. This explains why his approach to the Bhimbetka cave-paintings is subjective. His reproductions breathe with a life of their own and have received praise from art-lovers. Mathpal has tried to visualise the life of the prehistoric man and has captured some really beautiful glimpses on his canvas.

His paintings depict the folk-culture of India, particularly of his native Kumaon. Some to his works grace museums of repute, including the Huntarian Museum, Scotland. Mathpal has carried out archaeological excavations in Kerela, U.P. and M.P., as also in the Shivaliks. He has discovered in the Kumaoni Shivalik region a number of paleoliths, megaliths and painted shelters.

It is a pleasure to talk to the soft-spoken, unassuming and simple artist whose sole aim in life is to preserve folk art and culture. Though he is often on tour, sometimes in connection with excavations, sometimes for his solo exhibitions and often to attend conferences, he is the happiest amid hills, in his home ó Gitadham. "Here I get peace, satisfaction and time to meditate" he says. For him the best part of the day is when he lovingly looks after his folk-culture museum, tends to it and contemplates on its possible expansion.

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