Algebra

Tramway

Issue 2

Seven times three

by Amal Chatterjee

Amal Chatterjee

In my childhood, art in its myriad forms involved perplexing encounters with the good, the worthy and, no doubt, the banal and ridiculous. I had no way of telling them apart, I possessed no judgement. I consumed - or rather, observed, rarely contemplated - omnivorously. Three events, evenly spaced, might mark evolution.

Each in its turn

1987: Seventeen

The Academy of Art and Culture in South Calcutta. A tall, unbelievably, to my youthful, inexperienced eyes, modern building on Southern Avenue, cooled and with views over parkland and lakes, it had, through some magic, furnished itself an exhibition of Rodin sculpture. Old enough to be an aspirant connoisseur, I attended. Not the opening (if there was one, I wasn't in the know, leave alone invited), but an average sunny afternoon, when only a few others had the time or inclination. Admiring murmuring, occasionally exclaiming, nudging, remarking, we, the audience browsed the famous bronzes seriously, studiously, carefully consulting the notes presented and the labels and legend. Leaving nothing to chance.

Close up, the sculptures were quite as impressive as I had been (in some part, self-) educated to expect. A committed realist then, I marvelled at the form, the accuracy of the representation, the contrasting departure from the replica Greek and Roman figures that constituted most European sculpture in the city. As I reached the end of the second long, tastefully lit and air-conditioned gallery, I realised that I had so far seen only smaller figures. There was more to see. A sign announced a selection of larger pieces in the garden. Dutifully, I followed the thin trail of people out into the sunshine. The space was surrounded by wall high enough to block out the street but not to interrupt the sun, leaving everything lit brilliantly, the tones softened by the humidity characteristic, again, of Calcutta. The rigid, almost militarily trimmed lawn had the texture of astroturf underfoot, springy and resilient. It felt good, and the tall, woody-stemmed flowering plants on the borders gave the place an almost surreal air of controlled conformity unexpected in that city of people, traffic, sound, animals and odours.

The sculptures were not numerous, only four or five, but on a scale that I was somehow quite unprepared for. I paused for breath - and was collided into.

“You?!”

The voice and face were familiar. I hadn't known them for a long time but I knew them well. An acquaintance with whom I'd engaged in heated discussion at a friend's house a few days earlier. On a topic that I had already forgotten. Intentionally, she wasn't the sort of girl I wanted to be sparring with.

“Suchitra,” I said.

“I didn't know you were into art,” she said, with the archness only a recent adversary can manage.

“I know a little,” I said.

“European art even?” she said. “But I suppose you would be into things phoren, wouldn't you?”

The barb wasn't fair, she was probably as inexperienced in any art too.

“My tastes are catholic,” I protested, pleased at my choice of word.

“As is your school.”

Clever and trite, trumping my word, I had to admit – and was saved from having to come up with a response by an older woman with stern glasses who brushed passed us, planted herself firmly in front of the largest bronze.

“Shall we move on?” Suchitra asked, apparently mollified that I had been unsettled by the woman's brusqueness.

I couldn't have asked for anything else. As I said, she wasn't the kind of girl I wanted to be on the wrong side of. “Yes.”

We meandered across the lawn, admired first a girl dancing, then a man brooding.

“He liked Balzac,” she said abruptly.

“Who did?”

“Rodin, silly!”

The childish familiarity of her insult took any sting out of it. “Oh yes, maybe he fancied him?”

She sniggered at my irreverent smuttiness and my heart swelled. The lady with the stern glasses glared at us. Which induced more giggles. The guard looked in our direction, then looked away again. We were outdoors, rules of silence were rather irrelevant, given the sound of traffic seeping in, the crow  and the hawkers' voices promising hot tea and snacks wafted over the wall.

Suchitra drew up short and snorted. Puzzled, I followed her eye.

Motionless on the upper inner thigh of a monumental nude male, sat a lizard. Cement brown against the rich green-tinged metal. Somehow it was both appropriate and amusing at the same time. The lady in the stern glasses glared at us and stalked away.

Seven years later (twenty four)

Alone, as often, exploring a new city, ignoring the funicular, climbing the hill. It was harder work than I imagined, the sun was hotter than I had bargained for – the Mediterranean couldn't really be as hot as Calcutta surely? It could, apparently, and I couldn't remember how I was supposed to deal with it. Urgently thirsty, I felt in my pocket for coins. I had a few pesetas still, over and above what I needed for the funicular fare down. This was in the day before cash machines had sprouted everywhere, I carried currency as cheques to be cashed (at, I forget how many promised locations) so my finances were limited. There had to be somewhere with bottled water, I reckoned, as I toiled up the sleek black road. On Montjuic, the bay of Barcelona spread out behind me

Round a last corner, it came into view. Sparkling white, its facade adorned with the kind of clever-fonted minimalist banners I'd come to associate with European places of culture, the Miro museum. I wiped my face and arms with my handkerchief and mounted the stairs. An unsmiling but not-unfriendly man at the desk checked my all-day pass and waved me in.

In my year and a half in Europe, I'd formed an image of museums, carefully coralled spaces with unmistakeable security, little boxes with flashing red indicators, bored custodians with radios strapped to their belts. What struck me here though, was not those details but an abundance of light. Not direct sunlight but managed brightness through slits in the wall and angled skylights. Natural light complementing a brilliance of red and yellow from the art itself.

I breathed it in, a building and colours after my own heart, blue stars and red suns illuminating that which I knew from pages but hadn't imagined so real.

On the way out, I quenched my thirst at the water fountain and spent the coins I saved on a postcard, which I wrote at a bar table later that evening, raw red wine filling my belly till the late Catalan dinner time.

Another seven years on

Glasgow had the a modern art centre, other spaces with sprinklings, the odd room with modern art but the new Gallery, I'd been assured, was different. I had once entered the building in its previous incarnation but my main association with the place was hurrying past the Duke and his steed with an orange traffic cones perched jauntily on their heads. I'd personally never tried to scale their pedestal but, during late night sessions at Bennet's (then the only watering hole after hours not demanding dancing), I'd heard probably embellished accounts of headgear replenishment.

The counter offered information, cloak room services but no tickets. One of those British idiosyncrasies that I find refreshing, no tickets, no fees, culture for all, for free. For now, at least. A notice board was the first thing I noticed. Festooned with small scraps of paper, it invited me to add my note of appreciation or commentary. I scanned it curiously, finding Italian, German, Spanish among the English, and a couple of notes in Cyrillic and Greek. I wondered at these last, they could as well be 'I'm just round the corner, Alexia' messages to delayed lunch companions as jovially complimentary reviews 'FANTASTIC! Jack, from Cairo, Massachusetts'. Or somesuch place.

Soft bright Scottish sunlight streamed in through the vast windows. I wandered among the exhibits, pausing every so often. I no longer travelled on the paths mandated by guides. A tall mechanical sculpture, wheels, chains and colourful blades detained me for few minutes, passing children for longer, a series of sombre landscapes held me nearly as long as them.

Now on the first floor, almost alone, I descended curved stairs and re-entered the first space. A painting I hadn't noticed before beckoned me, a giant canvas of a man almost a caricature being dragged across a field by massive-jawed bull-terriers. I paused, both in admiration at the skill and the sheer familiar awfulness of it, the larger than life aggressors that haunt public spaces.

A hand slipped into mine, cool and soft. “Don't look too long.”

I looked around the room again. “Come on,” she said, tugging me towards the exit. “I'm hungry.”

Outside, under the now grey sky, I thought I saw a lizard on the inside of the Duke's leg, between the carved fabric of his trousers and the sheen of the horse.

“Don't be silly,” Suchitra said when I told her, “There aren't any lizards here.”

She was right of course. He wasn't bronze either. It didn't matter. We'd seen that already.

Amal Chatterjee

Amal Chatterjee is the author of the novel Across the Lakes and the non-fiction /Representations of India, 1740-1840. Shortlisted for the 1998 Crossword India Best Novel Award, he has received a Scottish Arts Council Writer's Bursary and been shortlisted for a Creative Scotland Award. After being based in Glasgow for many years, he now lives in Amsterdam, reviews regularly for the Dutch newspaper Trouw and teaches Creative Writing at the University of Oxford. His short fiction has been published in Atlas and TimeOut. Amal is currently working on a novel and a collection of new writing, Creative Writing: Writers on Writing. amal.tomali.net