KHOJ BIHAR MEMOIRS-IIThe train to PatnaRajesh K. Singh
October 24, 2009; 4 PM. Near an ATM outside the railway station in New Delhi I sat under a tree waiting for other participants of KHOJ Bihar. We were to take New Delhi-Patna Rajdhani Express that links the capital of India with the capital of Bihar.
This is a journey that Khoj is taking for the first time. It is also the first time for me to trek the path with KHOJ as a resident critic. The excitement is mixed with anticipation of the unknown, for KHOJ does not require the participants to pre-submit their projects to elicit any details of what exactly they are going to make on the site. Since KHOJ is an instrument of setting new standards of art and creative practices in and around the subcontinent, one is sure to witness the process and creation of some of the milestone art-to-be.
For nine years I have waited for this moment to arrive, and I feel hugely lucky that it came my way, not so much because I happen to be practicing art history (for, I am a small-time guy), but more because I hail from the state where KHOJ is headed this year.The climate of this last week of November is so nice. It is breezing, and it’s neither hot nor cold. Naturally, I am thinking of all the good things. Our berths are reserved in different compartments of the train—a sad thing that could not be avoided.
Inside the train, Shailly Bhatnagar, the coordinator of KHOJ Bihar (whom I saw after 13 years!) rose to action to perform what I thought was undoable. Requesting sweetly and politely she managed to exchange our berths of other compartments with the passengers whose berths were in my cubical. Soon, I saw about four of the passengers shifting with their baggage to our berths in other compartments. Foreign participants were amused to see the flexibility that Indians display at times.
Anna Stangle (Austria), Janet Kcewan (London), Pradeep Thallwatta (Srilanka), Tintin Wulia (Indonesia) any myself are sitting in the same compartment now. The attendant comes and hands over a white cotton towel, two white sheets, and a blanket to each. “Wow!” exclaimed everyone. “This service is not there in Europe.”
Then came snacks and tea in pots. Everyone made tea for oneself and expressed admiration for the quality. Shortly thereafter came breakfast: sandwiches, butter, jam, samosa, and sweetmeat. Although they liked the taste they could not eat all. About 8 PM came soup. Most of them said, “O! We can’t have more!” I said, “Dinner is still to come.” They all gasped. The dinner delighted everyone, but most of them could not finish the plate. They were so impressed with the Indian railways, its quality, punctuality, and service. (I did not tell them all Indian trains are not like Rajdhani Express!)
In the morning at 6 A.M. next day, Shailly shouted, “Wake up everyone. Patna is coming.” Outside, I saw the train slowing down. Slight veil of fog had descended the landscape. Although the monsoon was so poor this year, only one colour could be found outside in the landscape: green. Huts, villages, and fields were presenting the picture of rural India.
Taregana (literally, counting the stars) station was nearby, and I remembered that only a few weeks back (July 22) live feeds from this modest and desolate railway station was beamed for two days in most news channels across the world when full solar eclipse had taken place, and the phenomenon was best viewed from Taregana. Thousands of scientists, media personnel, and star gazers from throughout the world had gathered there. The station falls between my native district Jehananad (the name was given by Jahan-ara, the wife of Aurangzeb when she visited there in seventeenth century) and Patna. Countless times I have passed through the station but I never knew that the name is true to its meaning; I waited to be told by the media that the ancient Indian astronomer, Aryabhatta (the inventor of zero and the knowledge that the earth is like a sphere and revolves around the sun), had his laboratory over here.
Besides Taregana there is another place that is equally modest and desolate, which also came to limelight during the same day of eclipse. This place is Khagaul (corruption from the Sanskrit word, khagol, meaning the universe). Interestingly, one of the founder members of KHOJ and a member of its governing council, Subodh Gupta, hails from Khagaul. Aryabhatta also had a laboratory over here. Our train passing through Taregana took me inadvertently down to the memory lanes of history, to the past that is conveniently forgotten along with India’s contribution to science, medicine, and mathematics, which has been relegated to the margins of contemporary knowledge. The journey of Khoj through such places, by train, and through such contexts of geography, histories, and knowledge systems is, therefore, no coincidence, but in line with the principles and motto that Khoj has set before itself.
At 6 A.M in the morning when the train reached Patna, there were people to receive us, among them Shambhavi Singh (Host-artist, KHOJ Bihar 2009), Amresh (KHOJ participant), Ananjay (owner of Ananya Art Gallery, Patna), etc.
The morning is not like other mornings. Millions of Biharis are on the road barefoot, carrying overhead bamboo baskets laden with puja and prasad items and heading in procession like a flood towards the banks of the Ganges and other water bodies. These people are going to observe the Chhatt festival. It is the most sacred, the most revered, and the most important festival of Bihar. Not everyone is able to perform the puja. Mostly women and men are able to participate. Children and many other people who do not find it possible to observe all the austere practices and rites involved abstain from the puja, and carry out other tasks like assisting the puja, sweeping and washing the pathways through which the devotees would pass through, setting up lights and water and tea arrangements on the way, etc., for it is believed that even such acts of assisting the devotees carry great religious merit.
Chhatt is a festival of sun-worship. Because the sun was a major god in the Vedic period, it seems that the festival is being observed since the vedic times (third-second millennium B.C.). Other major deities of the Vedic period were Indra, Varuna, Agni, Pasupati, etc whose worship or image or temple-making as the main god is rarely observed today. Puranic deities like Rama, Krishna, Hanuman, Ganesh, Durga, Parvati, Shiva, etc. began to be venerated and worshipped in a major way since the Puranic period (mid-second millennium B.C.) .
Thus, the Chhatt festival is a unique festival in its own way, and the participants of KHOJ Bihar 2009 are going to get the chance of a rendezvous with the festival and to witness a phenomenon that resides in the core of the culture of Bihar.
We got inside the vehicles that had come for us and headed straight to the banks of the Ganges. Piercing the crowd, we saw millions of devotees standing in the holy waters of the Ganges offering the morning argha (the propitious acts, rites, and puja of the sun performed in the evening and morning of Chhatt on the ghats). Even for me it was a unique experience, not to speak of the experience of the other KHOJ participants.
Thereafter, we went to Tarumitra Ashram (about 400 metres away, on Digha Ghat), an organization which is providing the boarding and lodging facility for KHOJ Bihar 2009. It provides a unique environment and context to the artists for creating site-specific works. About the Ahram an account would be presented in another memoir.