When legendary Cuban novelist, poet and artist Severo Sarduy visited Varanasi, one of the most popular temple towns in India on the banks of the river Ganges, in 1971, he was struck by the “strange people of the city wrapped up in colouful saris, dhotis (traditional Indian attires) and printed turbans”. Life, to him, was like a riot of bright Indian colours and elaborate religious rituals.
He photographed the city, its temples and the historic river bank bustling with pilgrims , devotees, women, men, children and even guards and local wrestlers armed with spears. It reminded him of the Indian holy trinity- “Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu in different avatars”.
“It took me almost 48 hours to travel from Delhi to Varanasi by train,” Sarduy recalled later.
“The East of Severo Sarduy” - a month long exhibition of paintings, photographs, artifacts, books and texts that document writer-painter's fascination with India and Orient – at the Instituto Cervantes in the Indian capital in New Delhi is the country's first encounter with Cuban maverick's work. The show has travelled to Madrid, Paris, Tanger, Tetuan and Rabat to rousing successes. The exhibition will travel to several cities across India.
The exhibition is a tribute to the Cuban writer-artist, who died of AIDS in 1993.
As Sarduy travelled across India on bi-cyles, horses, cars and even carts to meet people, befriend and talk to them; his art changed. It unconsciously assimilated from the diveristy of India- its textiles, temple sculptures, calligraphy and religions. Himalayan Buddhism inspired Sarduy in profound ways.
The Cuban writer-artist's experimental novel, “Cobra”, post his India visit ended with a small “Indian Journal” which was a personal recollection of his two journeys in the country during the Seventies.
During his first trip, Sarduy visited New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Varanasi, Agra, Mysore, Chennai, Bhubaneswar and smaller towns on the way. In his second India sojourn, Sarduy he explored Mahayana Buddhism in the monasteries of Himchal Pradesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim nestled in the icy reaches of the Himalayas.
He spent months practising Mahayana Buddhism in the Himalayas from where he went China to study Taoism.
Sarduy's journeys in the Himalays inspired him to write, “Maitreya”- a book that starts in Tibet with a group pf Buddhist monks, who after the death and the last rites of their master, escapes to India.
According to Sarduy's friend and companion, French philosopher Francois Wahl, with whom the Cuban writer-artist formed literary relations, “India to Sarduy was a conjunction of the multiple and the zero”.
“Sarduy found similarities between India and Cuba. He was so much in love with India that at a point of time, he wanted to live here,” Calatina Queseda, a Latin American literature expert, said.
The exhibition, divided into five sections, shows the complex relations that Sarduy shared with the East.
Co-curator of the exhibition Gustavo Guerrero, a Venezuelan writer, professor of Latin American literature and and editor of all of Sarduy's collected works, said the “writer-artist wanted to break the image stereotypes that people about the West had about India and his photographs and writings used humour to express the typical western mindset that 'how far the east was from the west'”.
His paintings are surrealist – mosaics of scribbles and etchings with Chinese ink and even coffee dust where Arabian and Chinese calligraphies and Sanskrit symbols crowd in profusion like a “solid shape”, almost like a patterned cloth.
Sarduy's photographs of Varanasi, Khajuraho, Agra, Kullu, Ajanta Caves and Mumbai are strking in their details of Indian life – in alleys outside the historical sites and temples. A series of self-portraits finds Sarduy dressed in local Indian clothes and turbans.
Sarduy, who was born in a village Camaguey in Cuba in 1937 was precoccupied with the presence of Chinese and Africans in his homeland in early youth, but “it was India that always haunted him”. He had first heard about India from a group of Argentinian monks in his village, who had worked in India.
But he first chanced upon Indian sculptures several years later at a museum in Paris in the Sixties.
“In 1968, he finally decided to visit India after meeting former Mexican envoy to India Octavio Paz in Paris who told him to go and see India instead of reading about it,” Gustave Guerrero told this writer.
The works on display- photographs, paintings, texts, journals and memorabilia- have been sourced from private collectors, museums and the artist's personal archive, Guerrero said.
The exhibition, inaugurated Saturday, has been organised by the Embassy of Spain and the Spanish government.