Saturday, July 1, 2006

The life and times of Michelangelo
Khushwant Singh

HAVING been addicted to reading fiction all my life, I have come to the conclusion that novels should be no longer than 400 pages, have no more than five or six characters and cost less than Rs 300. Two reasons I have never been able to go through Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, regarded as the greatest historical fiction of all times, are that it is far too long and has far too many characters. I’ve tried to read it a few times but gave up before I was half-way through it.

A couple of months ago, three women comprising a mother and her two daughters, all three balms for ageing eyes, presented me The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone (1903-1989). It had been and International bestseller for some months. It was published over 45 years ago, I read it only last month.

I was daunted by its size (over 750 pages). But decided to give it a try because it is about the life and times of Michelangelo (1475-1519) whose works I had seen in Florence, Bologna, Rome and Paris. He was a contemporary of great masters like Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Andrea del Sarto. He lived in turbulent times of wars between Italy’s city states, French invasions and witnessed the hanging and burning at the stake of Svanarola. It was also the time Machiavelli formulated his politics of amoral diplomacy.

Michelangelo’s life was entirely dedicated to art. His love for sculpting living images out of huge blocks of white marble chosen by himself reached manic proportions. He was a small man, barely five feet and four inches, ate very little and often went without food. He had little time to make love. Two women came close to him : the aristocratic Contessina who he never made love to and a lovely, blonde full-bosomed, wanton Clarissar, who he bedded a few times. Late in life he had a homosexual passion for a handsome young assistant and an older woman who joined a nunnery. He remained married to white marble which lived above all living things.

I learnt these things from Michelangelo’s life-story. First, that a person must dedicate all his energies to his craft if he wants to excel in it. Before drawing or sculpting human beings, he spent several nights in morgues cutting up corpses of different stages to learn about their bone structure, muscles, intestines etc. to find out exactly how they functioned. If he had been found out desecrating the dead, he would have been sentenced to death. He read everything he could about characters he was to reproduce: Adam, Eve, Hercules, Bachhus, Moses, Noah, Madonna, Jesus — at what age he wanted to show them in stone or in paintings. He looked for living models who resembled them and then got down to his job with unabated zeal. How many of our painters or sculptors of today throw themselves into their works with the same dedication?

An equally startling discovery was to find that every age had men who hated art as products of Satan and destroyed great masterpieces because they were nudes or glorified sex. In Michelangelo’s time it was the preacher Savanarola. He destroyed priceless works of art in Florence in the name of Christianity. After he had accomplished his destructive mission, he fell foul of the Pope and was burnt at the stake in 1498.

We have our Taliban who blew up the massive statue of Buddha in Bamiyan. And we have hooligans of the Shiv Sena and the Bajrang Dal who ransacked archival material in the Bhandarkar Institute of Pune and destroyed paintings of M.F. Husain in exhibition and his private studio — with the blessings of their semi-literate leaders. In Michelangelo’s time, they would have met the same as Savanarola. Today, destroyers command loyalties of thousands.

And finally, what I began with: this biography would have read much better if it had been half the size. There is far too much repetition about Michelangelo’s love for Carrara marble, the demonic way he went about chiselling day and night without food or rest and the miserable conditions in which he lived. It is also full of names that have little import to the text. Besides sculpting and painting, he also composed poetry in the style of Dante. He summed up his life’s involvement in art in two short verses:

Beauteous art, brought with us from heaven,

Will conquer nature; so divine a power

Belongs to him who strives with every nerve.

If I was made for art, from childhood given

A prey for burning beauty to devour,

I blame the mistress I was born to serve.

V.P. Singh

V.P. Singh remains an enigma: politician, who became Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and Prime Minister of India; composes poetry in Hindi and English, makes pencil drawings and paintings while battling for life for many years, but has not succumbed to religion or superstition and resolutely proclaims he is a rationalist.

His poems, if they can be so-called and paintings are equally obscure. You have samples of both in Every Time I Wake Up (Penguin Viking). To start with, the collection of poems is dedicated to his late mother. "Mom Where are you?" sounds like a four-year-old looking for his mama. Some of his poems are short liners: "Lies give lover a fizz; Do not hurry — there is no morning tomorrow: Now I am news, no tears only ink; I am now in the company of empty chairs." And so on. Each of these few words "poems" occupy a page each. I can only sum them up in his own words: "I counted my poems like money, and realised how bankrupt am I." V.P. Singh may be inspired by Zen. I don’t understand Zen.

There is a lot more to V.P. Singh’s paintings than his poems. The cover and the back of the jacket have the same kind of enigmatic power that Gurudev Tagore had in some of his paintings. So have a couple of V.P. Singh’s drawings like his self-portrait as a young man and of an elderly woman.

Punjabi youth’s anthem

Punjab is our nation

Girls are our meditation

Drinking is our profession

Every day is our celebration

To hell with education....

Canada is our destination

(Contributed by Naveen Laiker, Ludhiana)