Guiding God through Daryaganj

ImageDear Aline and Robert
I received the package from you on my return from a trip out of town. What a fabulous surprise! Needless to say, the signed copy of your book now occupies pride of place in my collection of ‘most treasured possessions’. Actually, I don’t have the words to describe how I feel, so I won’t try. Just want you to know that I feel deeply happy whenever I think of it sitting on my bookshelf!

These lines are from an ecstatic email I wrote upon receiving a signed, limited edition copy of The Book Of Genesis Illustrated by R.Crumb, from the man himself. I had met Robert and Aline Crumb in Delhi during the 2nd Annual Comic Con, and upon their return, Robert had dispatched this token of appreciation for the three hugely enjoyable days that we ended up spending together. Leafing through its pages, I was soon drawn into the doings and un-doings of God, the Serpent, Adam and Eve, Noah, Lot and the rest of that lot! I re-entered a kind of magic realist world that only Robert Crumb can conjure—a world that stretches seamlessly from San Francisco to Sodom. And I realized that Crumb has come to mean something different, and more significant, today than in the days when I, as a young graphics student, hero worshipped him from halfway across the world—poring over his incredible drawings in the library, slavishly imitating his masterful cross-hatching in the studio, and defending his work against accusations of misogyny in the canteen.

In the early ‘90s, I was living in Delhi, working on my first full-length comic River of Stories, as well as doing a lot of editorial illustration work for magazines. The India Magazine had its offices above mine in Regal Building, and its newly appointed editor Kai Friese and I quickly became friends—having discovered a shared taste in comics, maps, pop art, music, drinking dens and odd objects.  One evening, we organized a public screening of Crumb—Terry Zwigoff’s famous documentary on Robert Crumb’s life and work. The assembled audience soon grew appalled. This was not the cultural experience that they had come expecting to savour, but a film about the most disgusting kind of violent pornography imaginable—and its utterly perverted purveyor!

I myself thought the film went on for too long about Crumb’s bizarre family—seeking to frame a context for the ‘bizarreness’ of his themes, perhaps. Whatever may have been the director’s intentions, for me the figure of R.Crumb emerged through the clutter vividly: an uncompromising artist holding up for inspection all that society wishes to sweep under the carpet. Not one that stands apart merely to condemn, but one that, with humour and irony, efficiently exposes his own complicity! Over time, as my work and concerns grew and took on different dimensions, I stopped browsing quite so often through my collection of Crumb comics. After my daughter grew old enough to pull out comics from the shelf and read on her own, I carefully packed them away out of her—and as a result also my own—reach!

And then one day, God casually dropped in to my city, many years after he had ceased to have such a presence in my imagination. And I rediscovered his divinity the moment I shook his hand. His hand—the same one that had drawn all those millions of intense lines etched in my memory! Earlier that week, I had been asked by the organisers of the Comic Con in Delhi to give away a couple of awards at their inaugural ceremony. As the author of India’s so-called ‘first graphic novel’, and occasional mentor to many younger practitioners, I considered it my pleasant duty to be present at the occasion.  Word had been going around that Robert and Aline Crumb were coming too, but I didn’t really believe it. I was mistaken, of course.

The thing about Robert and Aline Crumb is that not only are they among the greatest comic artists of our times, but also, on account of their extensive satirical portrayals of their own lives through their stories— two of my best-loved comic characters.  So, meeting them was a bit like meeting up with Herge together with Tintin and Captain Haddock. I found myself blurting something to that effect, and Robert looked nonplussed. But Aline smiled warmly and said, “That’s so sweet! Thank you.” I was overwhelmed. I walked away in a daze and called up old friend Kai—the first person I could think of sharing this with. Kai was in town, and his voice on the line went from being disbelieving to immensely excited within seconds. I felt relieved. I was not the only one still crazy about Crumb!

Next day, we met up again at the Comic Con’s main venue, Dilli Haat.  (I remain amazed that Jatin and his team actually invited them, and that they accepted. Anyway, three cheers to such amazing occurrences—they certainly help restore one’s faith in humanity!) Aline, who looked very fit for her age, and Robert, though a little frail at 68, were taking the noise and craziness around quite well, as they moved between stalls, meeting Indian comics publishers, artists and fans. For the most part the milling crowds of ‘comics aficionados’ seemed to have very little idea who this ageing American couple was. Later, I managed to shepherd them over to a table to chat over cups of coffee. Robert expressed his interest in hunting for old recordings of popular music from the 1920s and 30s, which he has been collecting from various parts of the world. This was just the kind of thing Kai had the entire lowdown on, and so a plan to visit old record dealers in Chandni Chowk was quickly finalized.

Our meanderings in Chandni Chowk and Daryaganj with the Crumbs made for a memorable morning.  Aline’s eyes would keep lighting up at the Sunday pavement display of flouncy-shiny children’s dresses, as she visualized her granddaughter in them. Robert stayed steadfastly focused on locating records. In between, chai and conversations flowed. Kai was the perfect guide, and Robert ultimately found his treasure trove. Afterwards, we went to United Coffee House for lunch, where the Crumbs confirmed that neither of them touched any kind of alcohol or narcotics anymore. Neither of them shows the slightest signs of having lost any grey cells to whatever substances they may or may not have consumed through their decades of collaboration. Robert draws all the time—his hand still as steady and sure as a precision tool, and Aline is doing a host of interesting work ranging from paintings to installation and performance art projects.

Just before the Comic Con, someone had asked me if I wasn’t excited at the prospect of meeting R.Crumb, and I had replied ‘Yes, but I guess I would have been more excited ten years ago.’ But the Crumbs proved to be even more inspirational up close, in the flesh, than as distant divinities—for they possess a quality that has nothing to do with media hype. It’s a quality that comes from elsewhere—from their immense personal and political honesty, from their lifelong commitment to their craft, and from the depth of their partnership as artists, lovers and grandparents. They cancelled a prior plan to visit Jaipur the following day, and came over instead to my studio for lunch and a gathering with friends. I felt privileged to be able to show them some of my work. Robert didn’t say too much, but the way he looked at my drawings was very gratifying. He didn’t just look. He LOOKED – his eyes behind those owlish glasses roving over the pages, drinking in every detail, not missing a thing.  We exchanged a few technical notes about perspective and tones and that sort of thing, and even some about balancing the demands of work and family! Finally, he said with just a little mischief in his eyes “I love the way you draw trees. I think I’m going to steal your way of drawing trees!”

Steal my way of drawing trees… indeed. Nothing would please me more, God!

Orijit Sen,

New Delhi, June 2012