Shankar Palshikar

1968. Shankar Balwant Palsikar had been appointed the new dean of Sir J.J. School of Art. I went to visit him; he had wanted to see me. He lay quiet on his cot, his daughter Niyati merely said, 'Aba's orders have come." I was speechless, overjoyed. Eyes brimming with emotion, I congratulated the man I called ‘Sir’.

The tour de force that had nurtured so much art was finally getting its due recognition. At over 50 years of age, Palsikar was still going strong, struggling to keep his work going. His troubles were far from over, but he had no regrets. "A man's mettle is tested through his struggles," said the man.

Palsikar loved his students but had a sense of rigour that was daunting: he felt that as students, the study of art was paramount; everything else came second. It always upset him to see a student sitting idle, and any offender would face his ire. Sir was known for his outspokenness. While writing, he would measure the distance between two written words with the precision of a scientist. He didn't mince his words. His criticism was harsh, sincere and honest, even if such censure would come at the cost of severing ties with the people on its receiving end.

I still recall my own experience of this. The first term of the academic year was coming to an end and Palsikar caught me idling. I can't remember why, but my mind was distracted. Seeing him, my heart started pounding almost audibly. But there was nothing I could do but count the beats. He walked straight in my direction. I couldn't look him in the eye. The thought of getting up and walking out of the class breezed through my mind, but I remained frozen where I was.

Sir was indefatigable. What he set out to do, he always accomplished. It was this pluck that kindled a spark in us, motivating us to hone our skills, to achieve greater highs.

One day in class, we were whiling away our time — a usual malaise. Unexpectedly, sir entered the room. He affectionately put his arm around a student's shoulders and engaged him in an earnest talk. In the first few minutes, everyone was curious about his next step. And he indeed took a step — out of the class, taking the student with him. We were baffled. But before we could solve this sudden mystery, the student reappeared, carrying a blank canvas in his hands. Curious, we all crowded around him, dying to know what had happened. We asked him whether Sir had bought the canvas for him. He nodded in the affirmative, and the wiser among us got the message.

The next day, I was a little late for class. I had a new canvas with me. I stepped in to discover that everyone else too had brought a new canvas. I went in and stole a glance at Palsikar, who wore a nonchalant face as though nothing had happened, staking no moral claim on those canvases. There was a tone of triumph and happiness among all the students. My enthusiasm found a new zenith. Since that day, none gave him cause to buy canvases for any of us. He had awakened something in each of us. The flame he had lit was burning bright and clear, a spark that would never dim.

Books were an inseparable part of Sir's life. He had room for all kinds of books in his house – right from the Dasbodha of Samarth Ramdas to Kant's aesthetic theory. Always happy to lend books to deserving readers, he thought it his duty to recommend a good book to anyone who came in his contact.

Sir had a great liking for the works of Kahlil Gibran. One day he read a passage from his Son of Man. It told the story of Jesus' crucifixion. As he went on, one could feel Jesus' pain, in each word. His voice had a quality that gave words a dramatic quality: one could feel the pathos. He was so involved in the narration that it seemed as though he were relating something he himself had witnessed. Gradually, one could visualize the hill with Jesus' cross, in the darkness outside the window. Sir was no longer reading. He was speaking. He had become Kahlil Gibran. The darkness outside was bleeding.

When he spoke, the listener didn't merely hear, but actually saw the words magically become something well beyond their original function.

Palsikar was a veritable mine of experience. Those students that had him as their teacher considered themselves fortunate, and those that didn't regretted it greatly. Is painting a real need in such times? Why does today's artist paint? Does he paint a picture or something else altogether through the medium of painting? Or is he busy with just doing something different from others? He would provoke students by asking such questions and also clear their confusion by giving some answers himself. We were his saplings. In introducing his students to diverse concepts, he was the germ of many a talent. He firmly anchored us students in the fertile soil of universal ideas and we went on to bloom into trees, each still growing, reaching for the ultimate truth in the large world out there.

It was sheer magic to watch Sir paint. At his demonstration for the Indo-American Society, his model was Gaikwad, a peon at the school, and he had actually left a blank space to represent his protruding white tooth. Gaikwad was in tears, as if he had found access to a rare soul, the culmination of an arduous pilgrimage. We later learned from him that 20 years ago Palsikar had promised to do a portrait of his. That portrait had emerged today, finding birth from the brush of a great painter.

Palsikar was not an exhibitionist. His purpose in giving a demonstration was to teach his pupils rather than flaunt his prowess as an artist and evoke cheap praise. He would urge his students, "Learn to see the light!" In his hands mud turned to paint, and paint to light. He would quote a verse: "A painter may paint the sun very well, but he cannot fill it with light". He has introduced me and a number of others to the 'act of seeing, sheer seeing'. He encouraged students to concentrate on how and what to see rather than what to paint.

Sir had an intimidating aura; all students were always in awe of him. Even after getting my diploma, I always had to gather my wits to face his formidable persona. This trepidation rose not from hatred, but from respect; it is what drew students to his class.

Palsikar was deeply attached to the J.J. School of Art. As a student he would come to class two hours early to start his work; after hours, the peon often had to remind him that it was time to go home. After his five years as a student, he spent 27 years as a teacher at JJ. His punctuality could put a clock to shame. As a teacher, he would be present in class before the students arrived. In fact, he was always the first teacher to enter the campus. I do not remember a single day in my years as a student when he was on leave. Even after retirement, the teacher in him kept working. The very stones of the school walls must have soaked in some of his passion for the institution.

Sartorially, Palsikar shone. Always well dressed, he had a liking for fine clothes. Agile as a graceful panther when dressed in a suit, his slim body complemented a simple dhoti just as well. A thin frame supported his firm, distinct personality, characterized by a keen, penetrating gaze. His eyes held an innate, noble charisma. I used to have the urge to look at myself through those eyes: to read a book, view a painting, see the sun, the moon, animals, birds — the entire universe — eyes that held a bottomless depth, unquestionable affection, and a non-negotiable rigour. They was no negativity in these eyes; they were devoid of disgust, murk, fear. Yet, some people saw jealousy in them. How far from the mark they were: Palsikar never believed in competition, leave alone comparison. His friends included not only contemporary painters such as Husain and Raza, but also young painters like Vijay Shinde and Atul Dodiya, who were then on the threshold of their careers as artists. This is what made him representative of all generations, rather than someone belonging to a particular era.

Once he recalled an episode of his student days. He did not have money to pay his admission fees for the third year of his course. His friends came to know of this and realized that he would lose a year. They collected the money for his fees and thus he earned admission that year. There were times when he had run out of paints, the paint box empty. Someone would secretly fill it with new tubes of paint. Such was the love he commanded. Palsikar had no foe. “I have no enemies,” he would often say. But it really hurt him when he had to fight his friends. “It is my ill luck. God gave me a broad chest so that my friends could stab me," he would say, “And it is their ill luck that their weapons should get blunted.”

Palsikar was like the delicate leaves gently swaying at the very top of a mammoth tree. To those who saw these leaves from way below, the lines on them look mystical. He grew in space where gravity had no effect. That is why he never grew old or haggard; he did not wither and crumple. He is still where he was at the beginning. Mystic, immortal, a force forever.

His book Panchjanya (that he finished just before his death) relates his spiritual beliefs and manifests his love for the life-force of which he was a devotee. He has defined the qualities that characterize the art of painting and  clarified many difficult artistic concepts with the help of Indian philosophy. He has explained with interesting examples the sensitive relationship between a painting and a viewer's mind, and one's emotional and intellectual responses to a painting.

Palsikar became a passionate student of yoga. Maybe this was his first step in actually experiencing Einstein's theory of E = mc2. Of his later paintings, E = mc2 is a proof of the depth and maturity of his creativity. A contemporary of his, an esteemed painter, once said, "If I could paint even one painting like Palsikar's E = mc2 I would consider myself fulfilled." There could not be a greater salute from one genius to another. The ethereal spaces in this painting sparkled with a velocity, like the God of Wind himself. Still, the colours vibrate delicately and look so radiant that one becomes acutely aware of the spiritual concept, ‘light is made up of light itself.’

The mystical shapes raised over the surface of the painting, the crisp texture, the chant-like words — ‘klim’, ‘rhim’, ‘shrim’— all these indicated that Palsikar wanted to show rather than tell something. He sought to make sound visible. This came from his spiritual experiments; he had come to the conclusion that ‘sound has
colour’ and pursued it through the medium of painting. Therefore, Palsikar's paintings cannot be read as text simply because there are shapes in them forming words. Even if one tries to see them, one cannot. For they are to be heard with the eyes!

Many experiences that I have had in his company have now grown to be a language in an invisible script. In his company I learned to transport myself into an unknown world, as light as a feather, bringing myself back after a while. This association has been pure magic, a celestial gift I could experience thanks to the closeness I shared with Shankar Palsikar.

Today as I write this article, memories crowd my mind, and I know not which ones to write about and which ones to leave out. I still see him before me, talking in his typical weighty lingo, heavy with Sanskrit words, explaining to us students his perceptions of shape and colour, colour and sound, sound and content, content and space, space and inner strength. But this is only an image in front of my eyes. The joyous sage who chased new horizons in art all his life has gone away to look further and deeper, and has become smaller than an atom and larger than the universe, all at once.

Prabhakar Kolte; From Art to Art, Bodhana Arts and Research Foundation

Shankar Palshikar

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