Monday, October 8, 2007

The Shepherd

c. Shepherd: (Sketch made close to Jyoti’s home, 1986; Collection of the artist.)
Now a rather different picture. Indian cultural tradition refers mostly to the ‘Lord of cattle’, the ‘Protector of cows’, the divine herdsman, such as Krishna. The shepherd is less common. Yet, this is an everyday rural scene: a shepherd resting in the shade while his small flock (of sheep or goats) grazes nearby. At first seemingly typical pastoral life – here in the burning heat of the dry season in India’s ‘Deccan’. Those brilliant shades of orange, gold and red that suffuse the whole scene, however, express more than just early summer’s heat.

The gentle shepherd, in grey-white cotton, head and beard grey-white with age, sits there on a tree-root: a placid, in some ways a frail figure. He owns little, certainly no land or other security. Yet, there is the hidden strength of long years of working experience. His strikingly strong hands rest on his knees in tranquil inaction. His face is almost featureless, yet looks straight at us with a strangely intense force.

There is hidden pathos and passion, because his pastoral world is ablaze, aflame with changes that disrupt for ever the tranquil shepherding that has been his life since childhood. In 1986 this scene was some 10 miles from the edge of the city. Twenty years later it had been enveloped by the rampant growth of urbanisation. The forces of globalisation have radically disrupted rural life. Even then, the water-table was dropping dramatically each year. Deep borewells had become essential, and each lowered levels further. In Karnataka, for generations Ragi - among the most nutritiously iron-rich millet anywhere – was grown widely. By the 1980s, though, all around where this shepherd sits, large plots of that fast-growing, deep-rooting exotic, eucalyptus, were planted, mostly for use in polyester-production, often for export. In this picture, very little green growth is evident at all. But this is just one strand of the fierce fire of change engulfing this shepherd’s life.

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