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River of life and learning

PARUL SHARMA SINGH
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chat For Amritlal Vegad, painting, collages and writings on the River Narmada are part of a reverent journey. PARUL SHARMA SINGH

The journeyman Amritlal Vegad
The journeyman Amritlal Vegad

F or someone whose creativity's cornerstone is the sacred River Narmada, painter-writer Amritlal Vegad readily admits, “Had Narmada not been in my life, I would have acquired a routine office job, would have retired and then later died. But thanks to the river, I am alive and will perhaps continue to live forever though my writings and paintings on Narmada.”

The latest exhibition of collages, paintings and sketches by this 83-year-old artist — that recently opened at Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal and is on view till February 27 — is dedicated to the life and vivacity thriving along the River Narmada.

Vegad's exhibition titled “Parkamma” (the Bundelkhandi version of ‘Parikrama') is the ultimate quintessence of his over 4000-km padyatra (journey) along the river and its tributaries in the last three decades of his life.

“The inspiration for my collages and sketches did not come to me sitting in a drawing room. I have travelled across Narmada and found myriad subjects for my work. I first began my padyatra in 1977 to find new forms for my paintings and collages, but as I progressed further, Narmada transformed a painter into a writer,” says the Jabalpur-based artist.

In several instalments over the years, Vegad has accomplished the entire Narmada parikrama (literally, circumambulation, walking along the entire riverbank) commencing from his city Jabalpur right up till Bharuch in Gujarat and back, finally completing his parikrama by 1999.

Still in awe of the river and not emotionally content with his trip, at the age of 75 he embarked on a second voyage along the Narmada — this time accompanied by his wife — covering a route of 1125 kilometres.

“When I finished the Narmada parikrama, I thought my work was over. But I soon craved for another padayatra. A lot of other people from Jaipur and Ahmedabad tagged along with me the second time round, whereas during the first journey I had to look for company,” remembers Vegad, who also taught at the Institute of Fine Arts in Jabalpur.

Loss of culture

While during the second journey, the infrastructure had “vastly improved”, with roads, electricity and schools making inroads in the areas along the Narmada, the artist laments the “loss of traditional rural culture” since the first expedition.

Vegad has also written three travelogues encapsulating his journey along the river in Hindi — “Soundarya ki Nadi: Narmada”, “Amritasya Narmada” and “Teere Teere Narmada”. These books have been translated into Gujarati (by himself), English, Bengali and Marathi. He is a recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award in Gujarati and the Mahapandit Rahul Sankrityayan award in Hindi.

The octogenarian artist owes his love and veneration for the Narmada to his father who was a “great nature lover and loved to walk”. “But I learnt the ability to see, comprehend and appreciate beauty from my guru Acharya Nandlal Basu at Santi Niketan where I trained from 1948 to 1953. Narmada parikrama wouldn't have been possible if Santi Niketan hadn't happened. In fact, I have dedicated my latest exhibition to my guru.”

Though Vegad was trained in watercolours, after his first padyatra he began expressing himself through collages. His paper collages have been “exceedingly labour-intensive and time-consuming” but the result is totally worth it.

With pollution and mindless urbanisation gradually infesting India's inlands, Vegad, who has tirelessly portrayed Narmada's beauty both on canvas and in print, believes today's youth must be drawn towards the natural grandeur of the country to encourage them to protect our environment. “There is no peace in our lives today. The root problem of all the stress is the artificial life people lead. As human beings, we were meant for outdoors. We have to go back to nature. It is our duty to indoctrinate the youth to love nature, because only then they will want to protect their environment,” he signs off.

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