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Drawing Inspiration

Drawing Inspiration

Author: Uday Mahurkar
Publication: India Today
Date: August 26, 2002

Introduction: Art, for this schoolteacher, begins and ends with Ganesh

Work, they say, is worship. For artist A.J. Patel, it is more than that-it is a divine communion with the divine being. Each time he picks up a pencil to make a sketch, his overwhelming urge is to draw only the image of Lord Ganesh and every time in a different form. An art teacher in a primary school in Prantij, a town near Ahmedabad, the 57-year-old has made hundreds of sketches of Ganesh. A careful count will reveal 256 prototype images in all. If the pictures show the elephant-headed God displaying fantastic mudras, they also depict him as an amusing figure in round and geometrical shapes. It is almost as if the amicable son of Shiva and Parvati is willing to do anything in Patel's magical hands, not just nibble at a ladoo with his trunk as he is traditionally portrayed.

Patel's drawings are a major draw in Gujarat. That isn't much of a surprise though in a state that produces the most number of Ganesh idols in India after Maharashtra. Ganesh enjoys huge popularity among the Gujaratis, many of whom have approached the artist with attractive offers for his works. But while traders customarily invoke Ganesh's name when opening new books of accounts, Patel refuses to give his inspiration a commercial turn. "I am happily employed," he says firmly. "I don't do all this for money." And adds with a touch of fervour, "Perhaps that is why I am able to see Ganesh in newer forms."

How this passion for the God associated with auspicious beginnings started for Patel has a long and interesting history. Way back in 1970, a fellow schoolteacher picked up an abandoned and broken dwibhuj-a two-armed Ganesh idol-from Shamlaji, an ancient temple town in north Gujarat, and installed it in the verandah of his house. A few years later, when he had to shift to Vadodara, the teacher sold his house along with the idol to a medical practitioner.

The new owner, a religious person, decided to immerse the idol in a river in keeping with the Hindu tenet that prohibits the worship of broken idols. A local art lover of Prantij came to know about his intention, dissuaded him from dunking the idol and procured it from him. Unfortunately the idol saviour suffered a heart attack within a few days. Apprehensive that the unlucky turn of events had something to do with the broken idol in his house, he eagerly gave it away to Patel, who had been eyeing it for a long time.

Patel brought all his artistic experience to bear on the restoration of the damaged sculpture. When he was satisfied with his efforts, he placed the idol in the verandah of his house. It was around this time that the creative spark struck and he was inspired to make sketches of Ganesh in uncommon forms and unconventional shapes. One of the more unusual is carved in the form of the swastika. The upper extensions of the swastika form Ganesh's bust and arm while the lower and right axes become his legs. There are many other striking flourishes in his collection: a series shows little Ganesh crawling on his knees like Lord Krishna, another shows him playing instruments like the veena and shehnai, yet others have him emerging from the AMU syllable and from a pipal leaf. As Baldev, a childhood friend of Patel, explains, these designs represent his pal's divine calling. "He gets spiritual bliss out of it," says Baldev.

The artist, Ganeshwala A.J., as the locals call him, derives a similar satisfaction in gifting these creations to others. "Ganesh is the sarvamanya dev-universally acceptable deity-of the Hindu pantheon," explains Patel. "I enjoy what I am doing and like to gift my work as well." Patel also happily obliges anyone who comes with a specific request, so Ganesh images have been configured out of material like broken bangles and wheat grass.

Patel believes his deep faith in the Lord has bailed him out of many troubles. Once an antique dealer landed at his house and said he would pay Rs 80,000 for the restored dwibhuj Ganesh idol. Patel refused to give in to the temptation of the lucrative offer. Some months later, when the dealer was arrested for smuggling antique items, the police learnt of the dwibhuj idol in Patel's house. They threatened to charge him with illegal possession of the sculpture. Invoking Ganesh's name, Patel managed to convince the authorities of his innocence.

His unstinted devotion, says Patel, works in many ways. On a personal level, it has helped him come to terms with the fact that he and his wife have no children. Now as far as he is concerned, his sketches are his progeny, in more ways than one.

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