“Poverty is my art ….”

In a village in the interiors of Gujarat this man’s family has followed the art of lacquer work on wood for many generations. Right from the making the thickness in castor oil, to the grinding and creation of earth colours, and finally applying it to wood to decorate anything from spoons, to furniture, to toys. His sons follow him, in what they feel is a dying art.
“Poverty is my art” He said ” for this art would not be kept alive if we were not poor”
Would that be true of any art ? Does wealth ultimately corrupt artistic endeavor ? Is the artist then confined to life long struggle to stay true to his art ?

22 thoughts on ““Poverty is my art ….”

  1. Dear Shekhar,
    This is a very difficult yet important question that does wealth corrupt artistic endeavors. Like Einstein said “always look for examples” so I always look for best ones to find answers. So let us see in the case of film, has Steven Spielberg started making lesser quality films because he has become so rich. I don’t think so for passion can stay independent of money – he probably had the same passion in Sugarland Express that he had in the latest Indiana Jones film. He is definitely an artist, just that he has started focusing on themes that will work globally.
    In terms of arts and crafts that we have in India if we talk about weavers of Kanjeevaram sarees in India, they definitely have an art but are paid very little, even compared to the price of sarees in India which is over $200. If the same sarees become an international hit, their price increases further, and they start getting much more money, they’ll still do a great job. Money is a motivator if it’s creation is understood correctly – the same man above will be more than happy to do the same job if paid ten times for that – as he is passionate about it and likes doing it. The only reason he’ll quit is if he does not like doing it and is just stuck with doing that as he can’t do anything else. That’s what I feel.
    So the only thing that can corrupt an artist is his/her own mind and nothing material – if he/she is passionate and dedicated nothing can corrupt it.
    Best Regards,

  2. Dear Shekhar,
    This is true in India for many age old artistic practices. Being from orissa, breaks my heart to see the ‘patachitra’ artists and sculptors struggling, not many propagators for orissi dance, and the precious ancient temples are in shambles under the care of the greedy Pandas.
    The average Indian population, still struggles to fulfill the basic necessities of life and wants value for money for each hard earned rupee they spend. Also in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, we forget to stop and enjoy the beauty and art surrounding us. And when we do, we only look at its materialistic value, forgetting the heart and soul put into it.
    These ancient art forms are also losing appeal with the younger generation, with more fancy stuff marketed and easily available all around. And pure art always struggles because only the creatively enlightened understand and appreciate its true worth.

  3. The Game of Life is a balanced one.
    If science/extroverts richness is out-there, art/introverts richness is in-here(in their minds).
    If artists seem to do life-long struggle to make both ends meet physically, the extroverts do not do less so to keep their inner lives alive.
    Then, like day and night, the times too change. There come some phases when even artists become rich, and there come phases when even the other party has no use of their outward wealth.

  4. This was humbling.
    One part of my mind says if one plays to the gallery, its a betrayal, the worst sort.
    Another part says, food has to to be put on the table.
    net-net: I don’t know.

  5. I agree.
    Yes, wealth corrupt focus. Focus is lost art is lost.
    Heart is the starting and ending point of an Art and Money is a paper value created in mind.
    Artist atleast in my defination has to be “Fakir” first.

  6. Does wealth corrupt artist?
    Is artist confined to struggle to stay true to his art?
    Would that be true to any art?
    Dear Shekharji,
    I am pleasantly surprised how you come up with questions that actually need introspection and even then the answers are as different to each individual(s)
    Does wealth corrupt a true artist?
    There are many cases wealth may corrupt an artist but NOT a true artist. Of course, some may get way lead…in process of either growing up biologically or changing their goals for material wants. But true artist is like a lotus in water which may be polluted….but lotus is lotus
    Is artist confined to struggle to stay true to his art?
    Yes…till the artist becomes ‘numb’ to all other wants of life and immerse one own self then the artist will be pure but again very few people one will find with that integrity and those are the people who are not famous simply because they are so buzy with their art that they do not care of others, while those so called ‘others’ will think that artist is fool-of-an-ass and many other things. Yet constant development with one’s own art will eventually bring success of any artist…but initially people will ridicule, the artist ideas will be rejected, severely criticized…Yet…true artist will go on
    Would that be true to any art?
    Individually, every human being at particular age will come into his or her own ‘form’ . The word ‘form’ is just a technical English word I am using but that can be easily used for Divine, Passion, Dedication et el. Actually it is not artist who is crazy about one’s own art, but the artist has now come into a kind of form which gives him or her to be in direct touch with something that was unknown to his or her true self …just that artist discovers a glimmer or ray…and when the artist sense that, there is no escaping…the artist will eventually exist for that form or form is there for that artist…that is what counts for TRUE artist
    Let me conclude with one of Kabir daas JI Doha
    Kabir soota kya Kare, koore kaaj niwaar
    Jis panth tu chaalna, soyee panth savwaar
    arise from sleep O Kabir, divest yourself of rubbish deeds…
    be focussed , light the path on which you were meant to tread…

  7. Shekhar, Actually we would be interested in your thoughts. You are after all an artist and someone who is compensated and recognised for your talent. What does your inner self say? Whatever we think is second hand, speculation. I think it is an artist who can truly answer this question.
    I am reminded of this excellent book by Shiela Dhar called Raga ‘n’ Josh where she writes amongst other topics about classical musicians a lot of whom have lived in abject poverty (like Ustad Bismillah Khan) but are rich with a wealth of a different kind.
    There is an incident in that book that I would like to reproduce here. There was an ustad Bundoo khan who was a Sarangi player of repute. He was a regular guest to Ms Dhar’s childhood home, over to her account…
    One Sunday morning Bundu Khan got lost in our house. Dependable old Masoom Ali, my grandfather’s chauffeur, had driven the family Dodge to Suiwalan and brought the maestro back in accordance with my father’s standing instructions and deposited him on the veranda. After a few moments my father hurried out of his dressing room to greet him but he was nowhere to be seen. Not in the lavatory, not still in the car, not on the terrace, nowhere. My father’s faithful valet, the smirking Jai Singh whom we all hated, was sent hunting every where without result. Half an hour after the panic set in we heard the faint, scratchy sounds of a sarangi. They seemed to be coming from the garden but we could not see anyone there. We followed my father in the direction of the sound and tracked it down to a tall, thick hedge of sweetpeas that divided the huge garden in front of our house into two sections. Ustad Bundu Khan was lying in the flower bed on the farther side, his instrument balanced on his chest and shoulder, his eyes closed, completely engrossed in the music he was playing. Even, my father who prided himself on courtly manners did not know how to awaken such a great musician from his reverie or how to call out such a revered name aloud. Anyhow, with much fake coughing and embarrassed clearing of the throat my father managed to catch his attention. Ustad Bundu Khan opened his eyes, just a slit, and scrambled to his feet when he saw the concern on the faces of the small assemblage.
    ‘It is spring time, and I was playing for the flowers’, he said in complete explanation.
    The same ustad, when he once heard that one Jinnah is scheduled to come to the Delhi radio station he is said to have said “No problem, I will give him Sarangi accompaniment. 🙂
    There was single-mindedness in these artists. Their world revolved around their art. 100% of their energies went there. And I think all that they achieved was of the intangible nature. They would have not been able to handle wealth.. they would have lost their focus, which is probably why wealth never came to the ilk of the Ustad Bundu Khans.

  8. I was re-reading the chapter on Ustad Bundu Khan, and I am all moist-eyed by the post script on the Ustad. Would like to share it with you.
    The Ustad migrated to Pakistan after partition. He was traumatised by the move. He did not want to do it but his wife and children had all left and ultimately three years after partition he with a heavy heart decided to follow them. Shiela Dhar’s father made all the painstaking arrangements for his passage to Karachi where he reached safely. After this point let us read the extract…
    …….We never knew how he coped with his new life in Karachi. My father received only one extraordinary letter of things three months after his departure. He had dictated it to someone in Urdu and signed his name in his shaky illiterate scrawl. The letter carried two sentences, the first said he would never forget all that my father had done for him. The second was somewhat longer and said ‘Here are the important taans of Malkauns.’ About twenty note patterns in raga malkauns followed. My father was so touched that he wept. He said he would never need to use the Malkauns taans in this life, but Ustad Bundu Khan’s intention was to offer him what he considered most precious.
    Is it this childlike innocence and shining purity extinct given that world wiselyness that is inevitable given the exposure levels of our times?

  9. I think wealth does corrupt the endeavour of art! When you do something with the intention of commerce (wealth), then you are not doing what you really want to do, but you are simply trying to make something which is acceptable to your target audience (call them consumers if you will as this is the only way towards wealth creation for an artist!) I think Indian commercial cinema is a classical example of this! You basically stop doing what you really want/feel but simply produce what is ‘sellable’. I am sure the artist above will have to make compromises towards his art if he were to think about marketing/selling his art in a big awy. He would then not have the freedom to create what he wants. I think artistic freedom and wealth are mutually exclusive. I think this is reason why most of the greatest artists always had / have a difficult life! Eg. Guru Dutt!

  10. Shekhar,
    The answer to your question is ‘No’. But there is a caveat called ‘Dharma’.
    Wealth cannot have a corrupting influence on anyone , if they are rooted in their ‘Dharma’. But , in this age and time when ‘Adharma’ predominates , people in general are swayed by the material , eexternal world.
    Which is why , All the great kings and emperors of
    Ancient India would retire penniless into the forests to investigate the ‘Atman’ and seek god on a full-time basis. So would the Brahmins – inspite of the possession of ‘cow- wealth’ , they would lead a life of simplicity , instead focussing on study and meditation.
    It all depends on how ‘Attached’ one is to wealth.
    Which in turn depends on how much ‘Dharma’ there is in the society , the rulers and in the individual practicing the art.
    Let us not blame ‘wealth’ or our own weakness and lack of inner discipline !

  11. Hi Shekar,
    Just to add on to what I have said above. Why is it that the most respected and critically acclaimed creations of an artist come through the most difficlut and turbulous times of his life? I think true art is very selfish! It is an internalised conversation with your self. If a selfish artist happens to get wealthy, it is only incidental! But if an artist starts looking at art as a means to wealth creation, then he could be corrupted!
    Also now can we mix art and business? Then I think it would be an ‘art of Marketing’!

  12. Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. Madhubani artists of Bihar. Picasso,Van Gogh.Deenanath Mangeshkar.Baal Gandharav. Begum Akhtar. Herman Melville (known for his Moby Dick). Meena Kumari. Phalke. Ghalib, Meer, Janis Joplin, Louis Armstrong, Bob Marley, Ibrahim Ferrer, Kurt Kobain – all these were most respected artists yet became victims of poverty, tortured souls, who really didn’t enjoy their fame and glory while they were alive- perhaps it came to them a day too late after their death.

  13. @ Mee : But then there were artists like Tansen, who were not only celebrated in their lifetime but their legend persists centuries later. Was in the royal patronage that let these artists create without having to worry about the next meal?
    I think for art to attain colour and depth pain is the key ingredient, whether poverty gives you that pain or personal struggle(like with Van Gogh) or war or some epoch making political event is irrelevant. Remember both Hollywood and European cinema and even back in India art saw an exceptional high after the end of the world war (and independence in our case).
    It is the same ‘Nightingale and Rose’ philosophy. Pandit Ravi Shankar had mentioned an intense pain he felt when he expounded a raga. It was as if he was trying to reach upto something but could not get to it. It is the pain of unfullfilment. And Panditji describes it as a sweet pain.
    Shekhar please do give us your thoughts on this one. I think it’s extremely devious of you to drop this off as a one line question and watch us scramble over it while you maintain enigmatic silence :). Only an artist can truly answer this question.

  14. Dear Ritu,
    After writing all that you have written you still think you are not a true artist or don’t know what true art is all about.

  15. Sharath do you mean an artist has to be poor and a wretch all his life.
    May be people with power and money should patronise artists as Ritu’s father did for Ustad Bundu Khan.
    The govt. does that and recently the corporates also started supporting art.But the kind of art/artists that Shekhar’s photos show- the small artists in villages and remote nooks and corners of the world- generally don’t catch the busy eyes of the big corporates or govt.s. Its these people who should be supported so that they don’t have to compromise.
    Maybe a provision in MPLAD funds or MLA funds or Panchayat grants should be made for such artists.
    I personaly liked the relationship between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Ustaad Bismilla Khan. Although unfortunately,the Ustaad could not do well for his family even after having a PM for his fan.

  16. Dear Ritu,
    After writing all that you have written you still think you are not a true artist or don’t know what true art is all about.

  17. Ritu and Mee : Completely agree with you guys
    Hari I dont know if an artist has to be poor and a wretch all his life. I think it is quite a paradox! An artist is only concerned about creating! He may not necessarily be concerned about its consumption (which I think creates wealth)! So there may be artists that get wealthy incidentally. But you may notice that the ones that are still true to their art may not really give it too much importance. It may seem eccentric, but isnt art also mysterious?

  18. Hi Shekhar,
    Perhaps it is absolutely true said necessity is the mother of invention,this reflecting here . But one more thing it is not poverty merely creates or keep alive the artistic view of a thought it also because of seeing the existing object in a different perspective.

  19. Hi Shekhar,
    Perhaps it is absolutely true said necessity is the mother of invention,this reflecting here . But one more thing it is not poverty merely creates or keep alive the artistic view of a thought it also because of seeing the existing object in a different perspective.

  20. can someone please tell if anyone knows how meena kumari who demanded a fee of 1 lukh in the 50s died peniless where did her wealth go

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