Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Books: Arun Kolatkar ~ The Policeman, a wordless play

THE POLICEMAN: A Paper Tiger Book.

A wordless play in 13 scenes.

by Arun Kolatkar

Pras Prakashan. 2005, p 70. Rs. 495. 2006

LIKE a photograph, a brilliant drawing or a graphic impression can prove more eloquent, more potent and memorable than a thousand words. Poet-graphic artist Arun Kolatkar's offering — in visuals sans words this time — makes one do a double take at first acquaintance. For myriad valid reasons. 

 The late Kolatkar, to the public mind, is better known as a brilliant bilingual poet in both Marathi and English. A writer known to be wary of formulaic responses, well-trodden paths, and packaged images, whether verbal or visual.

What's less known about Kolatkar is that he was a product of the J.J. School of Art, and worked as a graphic artist all his life. No wonder his poetic images have the vividness of a memory flash, the quicksilver of Cannes-level advertising aphorisms, as he yoked the everyday with the extraordinary, often scenes from the footpath with controversial recent pogroms.

The Policeman forefronts Kolatkar's graphic genius. A genius of the same unforgettable calibre as Shel Silverstein (The Giving Tree) or James Thurber with his 1939 classic The Last Flower. Or even Spike Milligan's unique lines. For, Kolatkar's inner eye is sharp (his poems testify to this), his pen is keen-edged, and his graphic wit both individual and impeccable.

What are these 13 scenes about? The life of a policeman (recognisably a Mumbaikar), with an irresistible edge to the delineation that makes this a collector's volume — as we quickly delve inwards, following the opening image of a forehead with a cigarette between its lips, from which smoke drifts skywards. A thinker's book, we wonder.

The visuals prove a challenge to conventional thinking. Imbued with passionate observation, translated into quirky drawings, Kolatkar melds the mundane with the mystifying, the whimsical with the wacky. In doing so, he liberates the viewer/ reader to look at the everyday with layered vision. Until his paper tiger policeman, tired of being buffeted by life, bites right back.

In one unforgettable episode, the policeman stands atop his pedestal, directing traffic, with a tiny plant by his side. A snail enters the picture, followed by a procession of its brethren. They continue to stride forward as foliage grows to cover the cop, who is all but invisible, except for his feet. The snail, like life, marches on.

In another, frazzled by lightning, he's left atop his stand with nothing but a notebook in his hand. Devotion beyond the call of duty? A third scene in evolution renders him in the thick of a Mumbai monsoon, until floods sweep him away as he continues to balance himself on a crested wave, a fish in hand. Where does he end? In a shark's belly, with a mermaid on his lap!

And so his life grows, through close encounters with bees, dinosaurs, and even a rainbow that leads to an unusual honour — until the policeman decides to come into his own.

A rendition of Kolatkar graphics in mere words cannot do him justice. Not any more than a mere review can summon up the power and rawness of his celebrated Jejuri cycle of 31 poems, wrapped around a temple town in western Maharashtra. Or the image-rich Kala Ghoda Poems, his take on the Fort area of Mumbai, with its tin-pan band, idli vendor and vendor of rat poison.

When we think of Kolatkar, we summon up images that defy a second person rendition. And a life guided by a creed untouched by conventional mores. A dark, brooding, almost mystic creativity that would not be cubbyholed, labelled or rendered poster-bright.

Kolatkar's graphic graffiti comes alive through lines that sing and surge, twist and torment. And echo life in its unpredictable brilliance.

As we turn the last page, we are impelled to echo the dedication: "Thanks to Vrindavan for preserving the copy of `The Policeman' all these years from 1969 through 2005. Till now, this was the only copy on the planet. But for him, the book couldn't have seen the light of day."

(The Hindu Literary Review, 2006)

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