GEORGE JOHN, THE ARTIST OR THE STORY OF A GENERATION

March 15, 2018

 

By Radha Gomaty

A small energetic frame of wiry strength hung over with a khaddar shirt like a loose tent; A sensitive feral face of indeterminate cast with intense eyes and flaring nostrils that suggested all at once both the leonine and the simian. The thick mane of wild hair and unkempt straggly beard that heightened the sense of being in the presence of a rare and elusive forest animal … This is how I remember George from the early 1980s during our days together at Kerala Kala Peetom where as an adolescent I was exploring Art in the last two to three years of my schooldays and he, a little less than a decade my senior, was already firmly entrenched in it.

It seems George had no connection with Art in any way whatsoever in his childhood. In fact obeying his elders, the meek young George even completed a diploma in air conditioning &refrigeration engineering. The change began after he joined a private college in Ernakulam and began to go to Kerala Kalapeetom where for the first time he filled his lungs with the free liberal bohemian air which prevailed in that little compound with its row of wild Badam trees, a small stage that hosted talks by local, national& even international luminaries and a multipurpose whitewashed cement screen on which even international classics like Wajda, Ghatak, Polanski, etc were screened without any fanfare on a rented old celluloid projector. It was at this time his oldest brother, John chettan rues, that George changed forever. He also walked out of a cushy job he had been offered at the Cochin Port Trust. The disquiet, passion and madness of that era had caught on to him too …

Since both of us were shy and given to that strange brand of introversion that characterize dormant volcanoes, neither of us really spoke to one another till some years later. By then I was a Fine Arts undergrad at MSU, Baroda while he was an enthusiastic proponent of Laurie Baker and Vernacular architecture. George was busy exploring the possibilities of integrating art and architecture with Architect Jaigopal G. Rao who, freshly thrown out of college for obstinately refusing to alter his thesis on alternative visions of architecture, was looking to partner with someone of high creative intelligence and sensitivity towards natural material just as he was embarking on his ambitious career. George fitted the bill well till in a few years his innate waywardness &restless creative urge caught up with him and also Terracotta fell out of favor with Architecture for ecological reasons, namely the phenomenally rapid depletion of clay, its source being Kerala’s once verdant and widespread paddy fields that had by now become easy prey to all forms of depletion.

The necessary link this had with the gradual breakdown of the social structures (and the values that were embedded therein) from the late 1950s to the present day, which had supported the collective practice of traditional agriculture, along with its far reaching& debilitating impact, will be looked into a little later in this short writing.

When the New Cinema movement and film societies came to roost in Kochi in the late 1980s and John Abraham, bypassing the rigidities of the production systems supporting mainstream cinema launched his novel, crowd funded cinematic venture ‘Amma Ariyaan’, a wave of excitement rippled through the 1980s generation. This was in an era when social ties did not have any other ‘media’ but committed minds, loyal hearts, eloquent tongues & willing working bodies (that included hands which not only labored hard but if called for by the opposition, punched hard too). Many youngsters went out of the way to publicize the project by raising funds, following the motley film crew through various locations and spending sleepless nights pasting handwritten & hand printed woodcut posters all over the city with pails of hand stirred homemade Maida glue in hand. George was one of them. In fact he even raised funds through bank loans with willing friends to stand by as collateral support and bought a 16mm projector. For a couple of years he went about the countryside screening documentaries and film classics taking on himself the task of educating the people about a new aesthetics.

This was only one of the several hats George tried on in his relentless pursuit to find answers to deeper philosophical issues concerning Truth, Authenticity, Integrity and Power relations that endlessly disturbed him like it did most sensitive people of his generation.

What was this disquiet? Whence did it stem?

By the 1990s, George too like most of the people of his generation had quietly stepped into invisibility and silence either by choice or circumstance. George however belonged to the former category In continuation with a deeply internalized non conformist, non cooperative stance, George deliberately shunned opportunities to emerge into the limelight the mechanics of which he instinctively associated with the shrinking of the commons in cultural spaces, a phenomenon which he abhorred and was in irreconcilable disagreement with. Despite all his problems, personal, healthwise and eventually severe financial constraints as well, George never stopped working right to the end. In uncomplaining silence he would often work the same heap of raw clay over and over into new forms sometimes calling some friends over to take a look before he kneaded them all over again back into clay, not even bothering to take pictures. After all George represented the quintessence of a generation, the best of whom cared not so much for the singular destination as the possibilities of the path itself, not the outcome, which they perhaps already tended to believe was ordained to closure or failure anyway, as much as the process itself.

This holds true from the iconic film maker John Abraham, who died at the age of 50 in May 1987 after an accidental fall from a building to the highly talented sculptor& formidably charismatic founding figurehead of the Indian Radical Sculptors and Painters Association, K.P. Krishnakumar who took his own life in December 1989 at the age of 33 to the self taught home grown visual artist George John who succumbed to cancer at the age of 56 in July 2016. This was a generation, the best of whom had already sensed the vacuum mentioned earlier and who were troubled on behalf of all by a premonitory sensation that felt like this nightmare of being in a vehicle with no controls fast hurtling into an endless impasse. Now that we have already arrived, the daily experience of its insidious fragmenting desiccating nature has only affirmed how accurate their concerns & readings were. Whether those who felt thus in the 1980s generation all actually painted, acted, sculpted wrote books, or made films is beside the point. What matters is that they dreamt impossible dreams with insomniac eyes, romanced new ideas and extreme ideologies and actually still swore by the power of art and artists to change the prevailing order.

They charged at all sorts of windmills with a stubborn, argumentative often even self-destructive persistence that overrode all limits of the personal. They drank, discussed, argued, fought vociferously; Never missed a cultural program, always made the effort to make time after working small day jobs to come for an art show with enough attentive engagement to comment. They were the first to read and constructively critique the draft of an article by an aspiring writer, buy the newest publication, watch the latest film, not hesitating to borrow money or even dig into their small savings to buy an artist friend some working materials, a meal or a drink or two and to support a novel initiative. They lived like the calculator was never invented and were ready to gladly die for their friendships. So when the friends of George, now all in their fifties and early sixties, roped me in to discuss the idea of a commemorative meeting, I was not surprised.

A few odd works of George lay on the table that did no justice whatsoever to his potential and mostly poor prints of missing original works that George himself had experimented with when color photocopying entered Kochi as a new imaging possibility. But it all changed in a trice in that late evening meeting in August 2016, when warming up to exchange animated stories of those heady days of shared insanities and heartwarming camaraderie, we realized that to make an attempt to do a proper show of George’s work is also an affirmation of our own lives as also to offer tribute to the intense spirit of those times and to share it with a fine new generation of youngsters who today live and work in a very different mileu and mindset. John chettan’s spontaneous offer of some modest financial assistance made the possibility real.

When John chettan confessed to having indiscriminately buried whatever existed of John’s belongings in the compound of the house he lived in at Udayamperoor, we took a spontaneous and unanimous decision to excavate the month old site the very next day. Warming up to the prospect, the idea to document the process was also finalized that very night as we parted. By the looks of it now in retrospect, it seemed George too attended that meeting in spirit.

The house where George lived was being spruced and painted up for the next tenants. His dear friend, Kurumbi the young dog, still inconsolably mourning her master, cowered sullenly in the corner ignoring all our gestures of friendship, chained to a tree in the compound. We began to dig. As we unearthed the material traces of a man’s thought and life, we realised we were excavating our own consciousness, its subterranean structures, its secret chambers …

Besides the staggering collection of liquor bottles that told the story of George’s famous addiction that he attempted to free himself of, failing miserably each time, there were other things as well, exuding that air of magic that only the fascination of a curious child who never really grew up can imbue things with: The largish fish bones he carefully collected from the kitchens of local toddy shops with their delicate skulls intact, small bones of other creatures, pine cones, an assortment of wild seeds, shells, little curiosities … All these were part of a real life dictionary of natural form that George John the artist and naturalist ,was passionately engaged with. There were also remnants of handcrafted everyday objects like winnows, small pots, basketry etc which George John the ecologist and passionate spokesman for the Holistic Life, cherished. We were lucky enough to even unearth a couple of beautiful small sculptures finished in wood that would have otherwise vanished into oblivion.

This humbling exercise led us onto the next phase of search. Where were George’s preparatory drawings, smaller paintings, and collection of books as he remembered as a wide ranging and avid reader? What about his collection of visual references that was indispensable to him being largely, a self taught artist? And his writings? Where were they? For as his friends shared and as some fragments excavated from the pit evinced, George often wrote out his angst with the expressiveness of a natural writer.

When John chettan informed us there were a whole pile of books andmagazines that belonged to George lying at his place on the verandah, I just needed to refer to some of my own secretive habits to know where to look. As expected they were all there. Lovely little paintings& drawings that were marked with that feel for form which distinguishes a natural sculptor tucked away between leaves of a variety of books piled on the shelf and the floor: reference books, encyclopedias, old National Geographic editions treasured for their record of ethnographies and rare glimpses of wildlife, various versions of the Bible, including his mother’s treasured leather bound copy with a zip that right goes round it. The Old Testament was his particular favorite as Christ Himself was sans the organisational hierarchy of the established church. Original texts of other religions ranging from the Bhagavad Gita to Devi worship to the Quran to writings on Sikhism was evidence that his passionate search, despite his self professed rebellious stance of a non-believer in a family of staunch Pentecostal Christians, included ferreting secretly and studiously through all Religions.

Writings emerged too, strong and emphatic written on chits or scribbled on random pages and in the margin of his brother’s children’s left over school note books. Several printed copies of an irate note criticizing John chettan’s evangelical activities was pointed out by John chettan himself as part of his beloved younger brother’s volatile, inscrutable but deeply affectionate temperament. John chettan, despite his highly committed personal faith, carried out George’s desire to be not buried but cremated. It is said that he tearfully bade farewell to his brother’s inert body not with the customary “Goodnight” that the Christian service requires in customary anticipation of the Final Judgment Day wherein Death is seen only as a long slumber before a collective awakening. Instead he said a poignant “Goodbye” that implied his acceptance of George’s final rejection even in the hour of his death of the family’s chosen system of faith in accordance with his self set principles. When faced with a quandary as to what to do with the ashes, George’s US-settled sister lovingly suggested that it be mixed with clay and turned into a portrait bust that may then be treasured. George’s friend and old student, Jayan Krishnankutty of Terracrafts then solemnly carried out his mentor’s last wish with permission from the family.

George’s wheel chair bound nephew, John chettan’s son, Joymon, recalls his eccentric stubborn loving uncle with infinite gratitude as the one who motivated him endlessly and with persistent research & personal effort made sure that he got the most modern wheel chair available in those days. John chettan’s wife, Valsa, recalls George John and all his changes from the time he was a boy and later ,as always the considerate gentleman to a lady & a gifted chef in the kitchen with commendable knife skills and a passion for washing vessels to perfection … And when he drank, their umpteen quarrels and subsequent truces Valsa chechi recalled it all in a single breath with a sob breaking in her voice.

Friends recall the never-say-die George playfully unnerving them by taking a surreptitious puff from a forbidden beedi and directing the smoke out through a hole punctured into his throat for a medical procedure. This was after he was diagnosed with cancer.

Interviews opened the doors of memory and the floodgates of nostalgia. We met people from all walks of life –from the scions of the CGH Earth Family, the first major patrons of George John the artist whose patronage was rewarded with a truly breath taking set of in situ terracotta reliefs and outdoor sculptures based on the theme of wildlife for their resort in Thekkady to local folk in the working class neighborhood close to where John chettan lives for whom George found the time and heart to create proudly treasured cement murals on Biblical and other themes .A stylized wildlife mural decorates the walls of a local community club where the local men folk gather to read the morning papers or by evening, after a day’s hard work, to play a loud game of cards or engage in some discussion after tossing in a drink or two. We also featured in these interviews, some of George’s friends from various stages in his life and who themselves hail from vastly different backgrounds.

We know all too well that our search has been far from exhaustive as each of us were carrying out these tasks stitching together time between our jobs and our daily lives. But that is alright. We forgive ourselves and do not apologize for whatever omissions we may have incurred in our efforts that we believe that time will make good. After all we are a generation that lived and dreamt with an outrageous sense of liveliness despite every constraint in an era when even those old black phones with finger dials weren’t common, TV sets were something one might catch a glimpse of in some English movie that played only at Sridhar theatre, when Computers were cumbersome technical equipment that filled an entire room in some remote space station or such like in some other part of the world and cameras, more common in comparison, were expensive, peskily delicate equipment and a roll of film something so precious that each exposure was made with hearts in our mouths.

What we hope for with this show is this-that it may encourage more such occasions of genuinely warm collective remembrances of remarkable people who lived, worked and died amongst us, incognito and in silence, their lives like the fiery trajectories of swift meteors that briefly but beautifully lit up the darkness of skies … At this point may we take this opportunity to remind ourselves and you, dear reader/viewer, that many today, whether able to sustain creative work or otherwise tucked into their quiet little pockets ,are still quite alive ?Maybe there is some rule that we don’t know of yet which prescribes that that one must be dead in order to be honored, held, recognised and cherished ?

Well, if there is one such, it is time we all got together to break it.

This show is perhaps just about the right beginning …!

George John & the Spirit of 80s: A Commemorative Show of Selected Works of Late George John (1959-2016) was held at Akademi Art Gallery, Kozhikode in Kerala from February 16-23, 2018 by his friends and family.