My Garden (Part Two)

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Monet garden

Read the first part here: My Garden (Part One)

My transformation into an avid gardener is a tough act to follow.  I grew up in the urban jungle of Kolkata, a dirty, noisy, grey, and heavily congested metropolis.  It was all brick,  mortar and concrete, and thinking about greens was a luxury.  Yet, as a little boy, I tried to grow aparajita ( butterfly pea or blue bellvine), dopati (balsam), and marigolds in planters of all sizes and shapes.  Those plants hardly ever grew into anything meaningful.  Later on, I learned that the commonly available soil for planting, called beley mati (sandy soil that is unfavourable for plant growth) turns rock solid after a few waterings and chokes the roots.   Therefore, that soil needs to be ‘prepared’ before planting.  However, I did not venture into that, instead, I poured health tonic into those pots – after all, what is good for humans, must be good for plants too. But,  that logic did not work.

sketch by Rahul Ray
My mother became a subject of my pencil sketches. Sketch by Rahul Ray.

As a little boy I, along with my two sisters and our mother made a once-a-year month-long ritual of staying in a little bungalow in Salboni, a rural and desolate village in the district of Midnapur, West Bengal.  There was no electricity, no running water, and a pit toilet.  There, we lived a very spartan life like the local Santal (an ethnic tribe of India, living majorly in West Bengal and Jharkhand; also called Santhals), Lodha (a tribe living in the state of West Bengal), and other Adivasis (tribals), surrounded by deep forests of giant sal (Shorea robusta), piyal (almondette trees, also called Chironji), mohul (Madhuca longifolia, also called mohua in Bengali) trees on a ten-acre  plot of land.  This experience of living with nature left a deep and long-lasting impression on my young mind.  

pagoda at eden garens kolkata
Pagoda at Eden Gardens Kolkata. Watercolour by Rahul Ray.

I developed yet another passion as a boy.  I loved drawing and painting.  My parents,  relatives and friends became the subjects of my pencil sketches, like my mother in the accompanying sketch.  I also did watercolor landscapes.  A shoulder bag containing various art materials including art paper pads, pencils, charcoal sticks, watercolor cakes, a palette, and various brushes accompanied me whenever I went out for a trip, or I visited green patches of the city, like the grounds at  Victoria Memorial or the elegant pagoda at  Eden Gardens.  On some lazy afternoons, I would go to the pond behind the Academy of Fine Arts.  During those days  the pond was surrounded by tall palm trees of all varieties.  I would sit in a corner and paint the anglers who waited, ever so patiently, to catch a fish or two. 

pencil sketch anglers
The anglers waiting for their catch. Watercolour by Rahul Ray.

I also developed a penchant for European impressionist painting by nineteenth-century masters such as Cezanne, Monet, Manet, Sisley, Degas, Renoir, Gaugin, Van Gogh, and others.  In those days, there was no internet to look up images.  My window to the world of painting was a ten-volume series of Encyclopedia of the World, edited by Arthur J. Mee.  These blue hardbound series of books, with gold engraving on the spine, adorned the bookshelf in our apartment in Southern Kolkata.  These books contained topics on world history, literature, music, and art with pages and pages of pictures of famous personalities, and places of the world, as well as color plates of paintings by grandmasters- from Michaelangelo, Raphael, and Botticelli, to  Renaissance and Impressionist painters and  modern abstract painters such as Pablo Picasso, Fernand Leger, Henri Matisse, and others. 

As an avid reader and a lover of art, I devoured those pages.  My father,  too, had several books on the lives of famous painters.  Some of them were ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ (on Paul Gaugin) by Somerset Maugham, ‘Lust for Life’ (on Vincent Van Gogh) by Irving Stone, Moulin Rouge (on Henry de Toulouse-Lautrec) by Pierre La Mure and The Agony and the Ecstasy  (on Michelangelo Buonarroti) by Irving Stone. Anecdotes about these famous painters from these books and pictures of their artwork from the ‘Encyclopedia’ filled my young mind with joy and adulation.

bust of Monet
Sculpture of Claude Monet at his garden.

Among paintings of various genres, I loved most the paintings of nature.  The blue Irises by Van Gogh, landscapes of Provence by Cezanne, or field of wild poppies in the French countryside by Monet simply blew my mind away.  My other favorite was Monet’s paintings of waterlilies and other scenes from his garden. His own garden! 

In 2019, my wife, Swapna, and I visited the famous garden of Monet in Giverny, France.  What a treat that was!  The field of poppies I grew up with was in front of me, and in full bloom in mid-May.  The famous waterway that Monet had painted copiously was laden with water lilies.   Even the small walking bridge that Monet made famous stood there, defying time.  The house where Monet lived and the garden were still impeccably maintained,  giving the feeling that Monet  had just taken a break from painting.

swapna ray rahul ray
My wife Swapna and I at the Garden of Claude Monet.

A visit to the garden of Monet was a trip down  memory lane of the time in my life as a young man in Kolkata, aspiring to be an artist and follow the path  walked by French Impressionist painters. 

All images and paintings used in this article are from the author’s collection. 

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