Narayan and me January 17 2014
* I think it only fair to tell the reader before they look through this story that I received the sad news of Narayan's passing in 2013.
One afternoon on my first trip to Mysore, South India my teacher (and namarupa co-publisher) Eddie Stern took me for lunch downtown. After we ate, he asked me to come check out a shop he thought I might like that sold old photos, paintings and prints of Hindu deities. It was more of a ramshackle wooden stall that spilled into the parking lot at the K.R. circle side of Devarajas market, than a proper shop. I was immediately taken with the proprietor’s kind eyes, sweet nature and the contrast of his chocolate brown skin against his milky white kurta. His name was Narayan, and to this day, I still wonder how he was always able to keep that kurta clean in the midst of all that downtown dust and soot.
I had never kept a diary before that trip, but just before I departed from New York, I picked up a Moleskine book with the intention of keeping a journal for the first time. Instead of writing, though, I spent those first sleepless, jet-lagged nights filling the pages with pictures I tore out of an old travel guide I found in the house in which I was staying. Soon I started gluing in matchbooks, shop receipts, restaurant napkins, my own photos, and just about anything else I could get my hands on. After procuring a pair of scissors, assorted adhesive tape and some markers, I had myself a makeshift art studio, and filled most of my days making collages after morning yoga practice. Discovering Narayan’s shop was like hitting the jackpot.
I started making frequent runs there to refresh my stockpile. He would show me the large paintings and posters that most people were interested in, but he soon realized I wanted the stuff nobody else did. For me, the more bizarre the better: old comic books and magazine ads, multiple prints of old baseball-card size Hindu God prints (I would buy stacks of them), and vintage photos of the Maharaja of Mysore, South Indian weddings, festivals, temples and tea stalls. By the end of that trip I had filled every inch of every page of that journal, discovered a creative and therapeutic way to express myself, an art form that I continue today. The seeds were also planted for what would become a long-standing friendship between Narayan and me.
After returning to New York I continued making collages, and the next year, when I returned to Mysore, I came fully equipped with all my essential supplies. Shortly after arriving, I went down to say hello to Narayan and see what new items he had for me, only to discover there were several new shops where his used to be. Some of the other shop owners recognized the vexed foreigner standing in the middle of the road, and informed me that Narayan had relocated to a new stall up the street on Shivarampet near the Rajkamal Talkies.
It took me 30 minutes to finally locate him in a tiny stall that was in better condition, but a quarter of the size of his old place. I was dismayed to see that his old goods were replaced with modern-style prints in colorful plastic frames, and not the old treasures I was interested in. And the he told me the story of what had happened since I saw him last. The police raided the stall he had been in since 1959 and forced him out because it was a fire hazard, when in fact they just wanted to make room for newer construction. They only gave him a few hours to evacuate, and when people saw him carrying his merchandise to his house down the street, some decided help out. Others, he told me with tears in his eyes, took stacks of paintings and ran off with them. Sadly, he lost much of his collection that day.
After a few cups of chai, he regained his usual good mood and said he wanted to show me something. We walked through a small opening next to the stall that led to a hidden two-story courtyard. He gestured me to follow him up the stairs to the second floor, and then, before a rickety blue-painted door, pulled some keys from his kurta and opened its padlock. He flicked on the light and to my delight the small room was filled wall to wall and floor to ceiling with a bounty of Indian art.
I have no idea how many hours I spent in that stifling-hot and dusty room over the next 10 years digging through those items. Sometimes he would leave me alone, and other times he would sit and drink tea with me and show me the prints one by one. He would say, “This one, Lord Krishna. This one, Goddess Durga. This one, Lord Shiva,” then wobble his head, flash a big smile and say, “Very good God”. Over the years I shared my journals with Narayan. I think he approved.
One afternoon in 2006, he handed me a small box of photos he said he wanted me to have. It was filled with old black-and-white photos of family and children’s portraits, weddings, Shaivite brahmins, young girls performing South Indian dance, groups of women dressed in saris and men in their smartest suits. Many were from his personal collection and some were of his own life that included his wedding day and old shop near the market dated from 1974, although they look like they could just as well be from 1934. At first I refused, but he insisted I take them, as he preferred they be archived in some way, instead of sitting in a box collecting dust. Presented here are some of the photos he gave me that day.
I am not the only one who has benefited from Narayan’s awesome collection. Many yoga students who visit Mysore have frequented the shop, and when I told Eddie I wanted to write this story, he said that most of the prints in his own collection were found there. I don’t get to Mysore as much as I used to and sometimes I worry about his wellbeing. So you can only imagine my delight when I recently saw a photo of a group of smiling Japanese yoga students standing with Narayan in front of his shop displaying their purchases….And of course Narayan was in his clean white kurta.