Behind every winning smile lies a story.
The handicrafts exhibition had just been inaugurated, and I was one of the first visitors to saunter in. He caught my eye as I approached his stall. As I stood there, admiring his work, he challenged me to guess the material he used for his carved pieces. The smooth, glistening black surface looked and felt like plastic. He laughed: “I use the horns of the buffalo and the ox.” I could hardly believe my ears — and eyes. The carvings didn’t feel anything like the rough horn of an animal.
In the meanwhile, the words spilled out in a torrent, and I struggled to keep up as he explained the steps in the process of producing the white color and fixing it on the smoothened horn surface. I asked him where he lived. Trivandrum, he said. He showed me his national award, and a project report authored by three Bombay University students who had lived in his house for weeks to study his craft. I read the introduction of the report. Horn carving is a traditional art of Kerala, but it is now dying. Gopinathan is one of the last of a long illustrious line of master craftsmen. Other craftsmen have given up and taken up a more remunerative trade, but not Gopinathan. He is proud; he is passionate.
Many years ago, that sublime artist of the chessboard, Alexander Alekhine, wrote: “I consider chess an art and accept all the responsibilities that art places upon its devotees.” What Alekhine was to chess, Gopinathan is to horn carving. Life in India, as in any other developing country, is a constant struggle for most people, and there is ugliness everywhere we look. But nowhere else in the world, I wager, is so much beauty created by those who possess so little.
Sensing my interest, he urged me to buy something. “The first sale is always lucky,” he muttered, almost to himself, as he picked up a peacock and offered it to me with an extravagant flourish. That was my cue to take the camera out of my bag and drop to my knees to better align myself with his world. As I composed my shot and pressed the button to focus, I stopped: something odd was happening in the frame. Gopinathan was behaving in a peculiar fashion. He was shrinking from me, leaning backward, face averted from the camera. It took me a moment to grasp that he was doing his best to erase himself from the frame. Why? I was having none of it. Still on my knees, looking at him through the camera, I exclaimed: “Why are you moving back and looking away from the camera?! You have created this beautiful peacock. I want both the peacock and you in my photo!”
The result was this smile.
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