EDITORIAL/ OBITUARY: Surendra Pal Joshi / Surendra Pal Joshi (1955-2018): One Who Softly Pinned Safety Pins / Johny ML
Surendra Pal Joshi is no more. Diagnosed with brain tumour he had been in the intensive care unit for a while and when he passed away yesterday night he was just 63 years old. Perhaps for the elitists in the Indian art scene his name did not matter much but for the moderate ones his personality and art carried some weight. He had surprised the art circles where his was a familiar name with his bold array of experimental works done during the last six years of his life. Surendra Pal Joshi’s name used to go hand in hand with the modern abstract painterly style. His large and medium scale abstract paintings still have admirers even among the young artists who have been his students, friends and acquaintances. If anyone in the Indian art scene who was not satisfied with the abstract paintings that Joshi was making was he himself. There was something telling him to change the track and get into something that would challenge not only his well practiced abstract style but also the very idea of making art.
Uttarakhand was his birthplace but his ‘home’ was Jaipur. He established himself as a ‘Rajasthan Painter’ and was very much comfortable with that appellation. A soft spoken Joshi always held his friendships in high esteem and never confronted the critics who ruthlessly analysed his works with a sense of resentment. Joshi preferred to walk in style; in his long hair, denims, hat and goggles he looked more like someone crossed over to the present time from the time of the Beatles. The ‘Young Man’ tag suited him well and he sported his style with a sense of flourish even when some of his contemporaries took some jibes at his dressing style. In his paintings, like in his personal demeanour he maintained a sense of calm and introspective mood. A man coming from Dehra Doon shouldn’t have gone for such luminous yellows and greens. Had it been the ever changing seasons of his birthplace that moved his moods he wouldn’t have stuck much to those flat surfaces with transparent over-layering. It was Jaipur, its sun, its pinks, its grey expanses that moved him incessantly.
I met Joshi for the first time in 2009 when he came to meet me in Delhi. He wanted to have a show with one of the private galleries in Delhi. I introduced him to the gallery and I believe they did some work together too. He came all the way once again to meet me in 2012 when I was the curatorial director of the now defunct United Art Fair (UAF). He came with a moderately sized painting to the UAF office in Delhi Cantonment. I thought he brought that work to exhibit in the UAF. But he surprised me by saying that it was a gift for me. I instantly displayed it in my cabin at the backside wall, above my head for everyone to see. United Art Fair did not last and somehow I failed to pick up that work from the UAF office. Very few works have stayed with me and I do not know whether I would take them along when I move to another place next. Surendra Pal Joshi did exhibit a few big works in the UAF.
Post UAF, Joshi once again surprised me when he came visiting me in my studio. This time he had something different to show me. He showed me a new work, a sort of curtain made out of safety pins. I was slightly sceptical about that work but he was very positive and adamant about the ways in which he was about to take safety pins as a new medium for his works. He told me that he wanted to do installations and site specific works using safety pins. Then he came out with a huge helmet made of safety pins, complete with blue LED lights giving it an eerie feeling. The last one he did was a medium sized chopper out of those safety pins, this time again with the blue LED lights. Joshi finally seemed to have arrived where he always wanted to arrive. He could exhibit the helmet work in Delhi. This was the same time when another Rajasthani artist was finding his foothold in Delhi with his ‘Snake’ made out of computer hardware junk. Mukesh Sharma and Surendra Pal Joshi would have made an interesting pair from Rajasthan who made installations out of unlikely art materials. But using such materials has never been something exceptional in the material hungry art world. In India, Sunil Gawde had used razor blades to create his installations, from a butterfly forms to spiral staircases. Tired of two dimensional forms Pooja Iranna had moved to new mediums like object assemblages and videos. But at the same time she found her material in ‘stapler pins’. Begum Tyeba Lipi of Bangaldesh too was using razor blades and stationary materials to create art. What made these artists and Joshi different was the gallery patronage; Joshi never got it and the other got it. Had he too been given a chance in the mainstream art galleries, would Joshi have become a cutting edge artist? That’s a very speculative question which would yield only speculative answers incapable of taking us anywhere.
Did Joshi know that death was coming? In 2016, Joshi came to Delhi with his wife and he was on a mission, which included seeking my expertise on setting up a museum in Dehradoon. On an early winter noon we met in Dilli Haat and while having lunch we discussed the museum that Joshi was setting up in Dehra Doon. Over many phone calls and emails he had been communicating with me on this for a few months before our meeting and this time he had some photographs to show me in his ipad. It was not a huge museum but an impressive place. He told me how he wanted to use one floor to house his works and the other floor to have contemporary exhibits; some changing shows and a permanent collection. He wanted me to visit the place and also to come out with a book on his works. But in the same breath he was enlightening me of the financial issues involved as he was working closely with the government departments in Uttarkhand. “Bureaucrats do not understand artists. They always want to decide for the artists. I am resisting with all my might,” he told me.
Then again Joshi called me after a couple of months. He was sounding worried and dejected. He said now there was a problem regarding the museum’s facade. There is a mall just behind the museum and the museum is right next to the main road. The entrepreneur who built the mall had strong political clouts. He apparently stalled the progress of the museum citing the issue that the museum would obstruct the ‘view’ of his mall from the road. Joshi told me that he was doing his level best to sort it out at the earliest. If things worked as per his wish, he said, I would be invited to the Museum soon to create some literature around it. Nothing heard from Joshi after that. As I never hunt for work and as I remain a reluctant traveller no news from Joshi regarding the museum did not make any difference to me. In fact in the meanwhile my connection to Dehra remained intact as I was reading a lot of Ruskin Bond literature at that time including his autobiography, ‘Lone Fox Dancing.’ Today from facebook I came to know about his sad demise. But from his facebook page I also understood he had completed the museum and had inaugurated it with one floor of it with his own works. Surendra Pal Joshi thus wrote a visual requiem for himself when he was alive. May his soul rest in peace.