George John, The Artist or The Story of a Generation

A small energetic frame of wiry strength hung over with a khaddar shirt like a loose tent; A sensitive feral face of an indeterminate cast with intense eyes & flaring nostrils that suggested all at once both the leonine and the simian. The thick mane of wild hair& unkempt straggly beard that heightened the sense of being in the presence of a rare & elusive forest animal …
This is how I remember George from the early ’80s 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 school days and him, 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 & 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 & Vernacular architecture.

George was busy exploring the possibilities of integrating art & 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 & 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 &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 (& the values that were embedded therein) from the late 50’s 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 & Film societies came to roost in Kochi in the late ’80s 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 80’s 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.

Globalization had made its flashy entry into the country with its surfeit of glittering but non-committal images that while dazzling to blindness also stunned to immobility. The Commons, in every sense of the word by now, had become truly fallow.

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 docus & film classics taking on himself the task of educating the people about a new aesthetic.
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 & Power relations that endlessly disturbed him like it did most sensitive people of his generation.

What was this disquiet? Whence did it stem?

Suffice to say here that it is far too complex and long a process to try and encapsulate in this piece of writing that for practical reasons needs to maintain brevity. The disquiet that we struggled with in the ’80s was perhaps a far-reaching fallout of a process spread well over a half-century of processes of aiding transformation in the prevailing already aged, increasingly arthritic social order overdue for change through various means, forms &methods engined by various kinds of motivations & mindsets.

The Performing Arts, Public Oratory & Literature played a great role in various stages of this transformation all through this period (with the Visual Arts not assuming any form particularly appropriate for the purpose nor evolving into any particular autonomous role per se towards the same.)
However, any form of crisis, as always, takes root when a latent gap between cup & lip is not addressed and is allowed to burgeon sapping words of meaning and reducing actions to pantomimes &/or mere gestural tokens.

Through this entire period, the backbone of production as well as the very basis of the average Keralite’s psycho-spiritual &affective identity, Agriculture(and along with it the values enshrined therein) had been quietly systematically eroded with the more spectacular erosion & breakdown of the social structures that once supported it in a manner reminiscent of the English proverb “throwing the Baby out with the Bathwater”. The evidence was felt of how terminal the vital delink had become between the narrow ribbon of Earth called Kerala sandwiched between the majestic resource-rich western ghats on the east and the Arabian sea on the west and the Malayali who stood upon it when the practice of agriculture was compelled to dither to a halt.

With that, the vulgar aimless decadence of a fractured, largely comatose and troubled society that thrived no longer on creative production & labor but rootless consumerism & speculation, made itself evident.

For eg: After forests already being pillaged in by encroachers, the founding of (mostly inefficient) hydel & plantation projects through the ‘60s &‘70s, it was the turn of the hillocks.

Even inhabited ones began to be being decimated piecemeal pell-mell even disappearing overnight with the new(now ubiquitous) Earthmoving machines owned by soil contractors.
The earth excavated was used to fill marshes, backwaters &huge tracts of fallow paddy fields for booming realty projects aimed at NRI buyers. For now, let us leave it at that.

Promises/Hope reneged have a way of souring Being-numbing Heart & distorting Mind. We felt the disquiet only because the process of numbing was not quite so complete as it is perhaps today.

Globalization had made its flashy entry into the country with its surfeit of glittering but non-committal images that while dazzling to blindness also stunned to immobility. The Commons, in every sense of the word by now, had become truly fallow.

By the Nineties, George too, like most of the people of his generation had quietly stepped into invisibility & silence either by choice or circumstance. George belonged to the former category. In continuation with a deeply internalized non-conformist, noncooperative 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 filmmaker 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 &Painters Association, KP Krishnakumar who took his own life in December 1989 at the age of 33. The self-taught homegrown visual artist George John who succumbed to cancer at the age of 56 in July 2016 is but part of this pattern.

This was a generation, the best of who 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 there, 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 80’s 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 & extreme ideologies and actually still swore by the power of Art &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 heart-warming 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. It was an opportunity to share it with a fine new generation of youngsters who today live and work in a very different milieu & 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 & 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 &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 & life, we realized we were excavating our own consciousness, its subterranean structures, its secret chambers …

We began to dig. As we unearthed the material traces of a man’s thought & life, we realized 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 & Naturalist, was passionately engaged with.

There were also remnants of handcrafted everyday objects like winnows, small pots, basketry etc which George John, the Ecologist & 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 the search. Where were George’s preparatory drawings, smaller paintings, & collection of books as he is remembered as a wide-ranging & avid reader? What about his collection of visual references that was indispensable to him being by large, 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 was a whole pile of books &magazines 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 Nat Geo 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 around it.
The old testament was his particular favorite as Christ himself was, sans the organizational 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& 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 leftover school notebooks.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 of the family’s chosen system of faith even in the hour of his death in accordance with his self-set principles.
When faced with a quandary as to what to do with the ashes, George’s sister settled in the U.S lovingly suggested that it be mixed with clay and turned into a portrait bust that may then be treasured by the family.

George’s friend & old student, Jayan Krishnankutty of Terracrafts then solemnly carried out his mentor’s last wish with permission from the family.
George ’s wheelchair-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 wheelchair available in those days.
John chettan’s wife 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 & a passion for washing vessels to perfection … And when he drank, their umpteen quarrels &subsequent truces, She 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 breathtaking set of in situ terracotta reliefs &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 was 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 exotic space station or such like in a remote part of some other world; 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 leaping frog-like into our mouths in direct proportion to the perpetually growing hole in the pocket.

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, recognized 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!






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