This small watercolour by Priyam Chatterjee brings many thoughts to my overworked and undersized brain…A brain greedy for rushing colours, vibrance and images cannot stop going back to this painting and freezing…arrested with the stark painfulness of the moment captured in vivid colours.
A day before India creaked with her arthitic joints towards her nearly 70th birthday celebrating the formation of one of the world’s largest functioning democracies, Priyam saw this tiny girl with big and beautiful eyes stopping near vehicles at a traffic signal in the financial capital of India. No, she wasn’t begging for money, she was simply selling her freedom. She probably didn’t know she had already sold her freedom, even before she was born, maybe a few generations back …when living in rural India her ancestors were exploited in the name of tribes and treated as castaways. Of course now we are politically correct and call such people ‘marginalised’ – one of the many labels the civilised and intellectual society has created for people they feel unable to address. We march and fast for them, we shout about them and then we walk on as if nothing has changed.
Better hide these ‘marginalised’ people under flyovers, near sewages, suffocating in the mad rush of rats and dead species of unknown scum, and abuse them if they stretch out a tiny little palm by calling them “beggars”. Why don’t we just turn our heads and minds away from these abject realities and rejoice in the celebrations, parties, balloons, shallow hypocrisies and fathomless lies of shame and blame someone, anyone, just anyone who will make us feel light and happy? After all, it must be someone’s else’s fault that this little child has to survive hunger, pain, starvation and abuse- it truly and possibly cannot be our fault!
Somehow the words of the poet Rabindranath Tagore keep crashing to me like waves of a stormy sea upon the gravelled beach:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, My Father, let my country awake.
(Translation from the original Bangla poem, Chitto jetha bhoyshunyo, published in the Gitanjali in 1910)
Is this the freedom we dream of? What is freedom? What do we tell this pretty child when we see her next? What will she know of the flags she holds in her hand? That we, the people, have betrayed her? That her country has denied her? That she is not free…like the small flags she clutches in her tiny hands, she will always remain an image, something to be bought and thrown away and discarded?
The artist calls his painting simply: She sells sea shells…
But what will you?