Here is a thoda...hut ke story of Lalit Kumar, otherwise your typical millennium city professional who picks his laptop bag and heads to work, except when he takes a back-pack, wears riding shoes and alights a horse in faraway lands of Cuba and Mongolia - something in India, some of us get to do only once in a lifetime when we embark on greatest adventure of our lives - "Marriage" :)
This story is of adventures of a “Galloping” kind, of a salt and pepper haired man with a ponytail and beard who walked into the Café with a young, chirpy bespectacled kid one rainy evening of July. From his remark about the weather, to how he got to know about the place and set on exploring it, he struck as an easy-going, no airs chap. There was something about the demeanour which suggested to me that he is a “been there – done that” kind of a guy! So started some of the most interesting cups of Masala Chai with Baarish ke Pakode, that I have had in the Café since we opened. The guy is Lalit Kumar, and as the conversations revealed, every bit “unlike” a typical IT professional living in the Millennium City. How so? Well in a nutshell, man believes in exploring the unexplored, “unconventional” destinations! Financial independence + Sub-conscious imprints from being an avid history buff + Penchant for “thoda…hut ke” (our kinda thing!) = Concoction of Story-worthy adventures! And his choice of travel is more equestrian than pedestrian! From Horse riding and back-packing in Cuba to an open country “galloping” horse-back trek in vast Steppes of Mongolia, it’s a delight to listen and pen his experience! Both Cuba and Mongolia live under an overwhelming shadow of their past and locally Colossal, larger than life personalities of Che Guevara and Chenghis Khan! In Mongolia, everything from their Airport, roads, cigarettes, grocery items all are named after the Warlord who created the largest contiguous land empire in the entire World history. The lasting memories of Cuba include an old world air, open Impalas racing about, World War 2 style trucks, rolling cigars in tobacco farms, mainly a happy laid-back lot with mingling blacks and whites, kind who break into Salsa on the streets on drop of a “Cuban” Hat! Mongols on the other hand have a unique “Karaoke” culture, with Karaoke style Cafés in Ullan Batar more abundant than “thekas” of Gurgaon! Families, friends get together every day and enjoy crooning to what seem eerily similar to desi “Bollywood” beats! The Trek itself traversed horse tracks over vast vistas of lavish “as far as you can see” green Steppes with wild winds caressing the grass blades. But if you think its anything of the gentle ride-along atop a horse or mule on one of our hill pilgrimages, the retort is “In your dreams!”. Picture this dream sequence, an Alpha horse galloping full throttle at its will across vast grasslands, your group a distant blur, your body and his synced in one rhythm and your fears having no choice but turning into a deep trust on the animal. His legs and your heart leap as one! The nights were around a bonfire, in middle of pitched up tents, lots of stories, company of local drink “Kumis” which is fermented mare’s milk, perhaps why it gives quite a kick! The horse pack was led by a 16 year old Mongol Girl Anuojin over 3 days, and also had a support vehicle to carry the supplies. 30% of Mongol population still lives as nomads, depending on their livestock for survival and put up temporary dwellings called “Ger” (sounds like our very own Ghar, right?). They have peculiar traditions of “Khoomii” – or deep throat singing and sports like “Shagaa” which involves flicking a single sheep bone to strike down another bone target at a distance. Now back in Gurgaon, telling this tale, empty plates and cups before us, but hearts full of moments and experiences which make you feel truly “Alive”! Here is to many more such tales which are thoda…hut ke!
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Lalit staring into vast wilderness of Mongolian steppes
With his ride buddies!
Ready for another day of adventure!
Shabbir Hussain Khan is a special Papier Mache' artisan belonging to 7th generation of practitioners of this beautiful art form. He is now faced with the question, "Should I pass on the brush to my sons?", a question we have to help him answer.
Navigating the narrowest bylanes of Srinagar, to reach one of the finest living Papier Mache’ painting artist, was a stuttering ride. After negotiating possibly the most difficult parking of my life with crumbling drains on either side, we made way up the dark stairway of an old rickety three story building. We were met with a big, beaming smile that reached to his eyes. A lifetime of this smile could be the reason behind forcing his eyes closer together to give it a little innocent squint. When asked what he likes most about Kashmir, where I first met him, he says with a strong stammer, “sab kuch”,even when probed, I get only a more forceful and animated “sab kuch” or “Everything!” Presenting Shabbir Hussein Khan, one of the handful old school Papier Mache painting artists of the beautiful valley whose only education has been mastering the art. The burden of the family, young brothers and sisters fell on him at a very early age when his father passed away. He recalls his early days at the “Corporate” , a 40 year old lingo used for a place where 30-40 artisans worked together for an export house making Papier Mache art. “For first 2 years, all we did was help other painters, getting them tea, carrying colors, we could not even touch a paint brush.” Thereafter all we would do was make straight lines on copies with a pen, again no brush. Each line or combination of lines had to be exactly the same length, same depth or force of hand, otherwise we would even get a tight slap!” The elder, experienced “Ustaads” were very strict. For 4 years, all we were taught was not the Art itself, but the Art of Patience. As it is this patience or “Sabra” which shall be the most able ally for all work we would do in future.” Thereafter started the education, whereas in normal schools, one is taught 26 alphabets, numbers, at the “Corporate” they were taught designs. Papier Mache art is all about intricate designs and their play, coming together in a series of patient strokes to create a beautiful symphony of colors. You will not find a person who will not marvel at a finished piece of intricate Papier Mache art work. “In my 15 years of learning, I got “ilm” of almost 15000 designs” he says. Most designs would need a magnifying lens to appreciate their true beauty. The art of papier mache has its roots in foreign invasions originating from current Iran, when a few of them stayed behind and introduced these art forms in the Kashmir Valley. The designs take inspiration from natural beauty, the changing colors of Chinaar tree, or the growth stages of an almond tree, even historic reference of the shaahi durbar. The designs have equally beautiful names Chinaara, Hazaara, Kani Shawl, Phuliye, Gul Vilaayat, Imber zal, Gaas daar, Gulandar gul, Toutdaar etc. Earlier, there was a lot of patronage and love for the art, and both foreigners and Indians alike used to pay handsome sums with a large heart out of love, but mostly astonishment and marvel for the intricate art. “That love is now gone”, he says with an awareness of his current living condition. “Very few people understand the intricacies of the work, some even say that you have printed the design on the boxes! Kashmiri Papier Mache is the gold standard, it’s the “Mercedes” of all painting styles” he speaks with love and pride for his work.Shabbir holds up a brush and says “This is the brush I started my work with 40 years ago, some day when I am no more, my sons can hold it in their hands and remember me.” The stammering artist proceeds to make a fluent work of art, signs his name in Urdu, holds my hand and gives to me, “You told that your 5 year old daughter loves to draw, give this to her from me. Tell her Kashmiri Baba ne diya hai”
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Hand painted and signed Autograph given by Shabbir to me
Traditional work of Papier Mache
Shabbir Hussain Khan