Krishna Chhatpar
Krishna ChhatparArunkumar HG

To Sir, with Love!

Vadodara, August 3, 2022

With Teachers’ Day just around the corner, here’s a warm and heartfelt tribute paid by students to Krishna Chhatpar, the little-known but much-loved and respected teacher of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda, who has recently passed.

“I still vividly remember that morning (must be in 1974-75 when we were in the foundation year and had a clay modelling class), when you brought a branch of a tree in the classroom. We all gathered around your desk. You instructed us to be quiet and watch carefully, as you pointed to a butterfly pupa hanging on that branch. We watched in pin-drop-silence as we realized that there was very subtle movement happening in the pupa. And as we continued watching, the thin wall of pupa started cracking and a greasy form began to emerge. Slowly the form started disengaging from the greasy liquid. And lo! It spread its colourful wings, slowly fluttering them. Having thus disengaged from the pupa cover, it slowly flew away as we watched with bated breath! So many lessons learnt in 30 minutes of silence.”

So wrote Jaipur-based artist-teacher Yunus Khimani, alumnus of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda, about his extraordinary teacher, Krishna Chhatpar, who passed away at his home in Baroda on July 8. Chhatpar was one of the early students at the newly reorganized Maharaja Sayajirao University in 1949-50, earlier known as Baroda College. Later on he joined the Department of Sculpture at the Faculty where he taught till he retired about a couple of decades back.

Amongst the star teacher-artists that graced the Faculty in the decades 1950 to 1990, and had exhibitions, travelled abroad on scholarships, sat on juries, bagged awards, Chhatpar was the proverbial back-bencher. His only focus was his students, and his teaching them not just about art, but about life as well. It was this teaching and the strong relationships it nurtured, that brought so many of his students, most of them amongst the top contemporary artists today, from across the country to see him when news went around social media that he was very ill and given up on food and liquid.

Vizag-based award-winning sculptor Ravinder Reddy was besides himself with grief when he got the news that Chhatpar was no more as he was boarding the flight to get to the city as quickly as possible. “So many years back, after coming to Baroda for my studies, I took up sculpture because I was so impressed by Chhatpar Sir’s way of teaching. He never compromised on quality backed by rigorous training, his approach was scientific and guided by logical thinking. This has stayed with me for life and informed my work as a sculptor and artist.”

North-eastern artist Lata Upadhyaya, working out of London since many years, was amongst the first to react on social media, along with a photo of his portrait she had sculpted while still a student at Baroda.

“Krishna Chhatpar was an inspirational teacher and mentor, who taught us how to sculpt, how to be disciplined and how to be humble. Throughout my studies at the Faculty of Fine Arts, I, like many others, developed a special relationship with Chhatpar, visiting him at home, being fed by his sisters, becoming a fatherly figure to me. When I was unwell, he would bring me homeopathic remedies and when I was working, he would coach me, guiding me through my learning. It was my greatest honor when he agreed to sit for me after college, allowing me to take his portrait whilst mentoring me at the same time. Chhatpar will always be with me, guiding and mentoring me.”

Taking this idea further, Khimani talks of how Chhatpar would plan the first two weeks of the summer vacation for his students before they dispersed to go home.

“We would gather at his home and contribute to the chores related to cooking and cleaning. There would always be a mango-tasting session. He got a variety of mangoes that the students were made to taste and discuss the experience -- from the colour of the mango, the region it came from, what its name meant and how it was derived, and finally the eating experience: smoothness, fibres, sweetness/sourness, etc. and of course, the comparison of one mango variety to the other. We dwelt a lot on the sweetness of mango -- the kind of sweetness, degree and quality of sweetness, and so on. Even the cooking, planning the items to be cooked and having the actual meal was an experience. Sir had a way of calculating the whole intake. For instance, he insisted that we all eat two green chillies; one fried and the other uncooked as you had to find yourself that both had different nutrients and it was advisable to have both! Most of the discussions rambled around forms, colours, textures, and sensory experiences. This teaching didn’t have a beginning or an end. It just flowed like life, each defining the other. To this day, I remember these experiences in probably everything I do.” A kind of Work-from-Home situation, where all students did work and could not hide behind "poor connectivity" excuses!

Arunkumar H G, the well-known Bengaluru-based artist would always visit his elderly teacher on every visit to the city. “When I look back, Krishna Chhatpar taught us object drawing and modelling meaningfully. The act of finding natural objects around us, scrutinizing our findings for hours, and talking about what and why we had picked those particular objects was an essential exercise in observing the magical creations of nature. As one of the initial lessons as art students, that's how ways of seeing are cultivated and the power of observation developed. When I recollect his interaction with us at various levels, I realize there was much freedom within the rules of broader learning. An open classroom with no space for stereotypes; every aspect was questioned and reasoned with, but it was all according to each individual's unique abilities and learning capacities. Krishna Chhatpar was mindful of his interventions with his students to not plant prejudices while learning with their imaginations.”

Krishna Chhatpar in front of a Baobab tree on the outskirts of Vadodara.
Krishna Chhatpar in front of a Baobab tree on the outskirts of Vadodara.Arunkumar HG

Dhruva Mistry, CBE, elected the youngest Member of the Royal Academy of Arts, London (1991) and Fellow of the Royal Society of British Sculptors, London (1993), one of the most important contemporary sculptors of India, is one of his sincerest students. He returned to Baroda in the mid-1990s where he lives and works. He visited Chhatpar almost every day over the last few years. In a heartfelt tribute he has posted on his Facebook page, he has acknowledged the crucial role that Chhatpar played in his personal development.

He writes, “… As a dedicated teacher he spared much of his time and energy for the future of students. Moreover, he was a devoted guardian of two younger sisters since the late 1970s, offering them care and support as a family. His emphasis upon primacy of direct observation and experience by using one’s own eyes, mind and bodily senses by studying natural and man-made objects instilled in us anawareness of one’s immediate environment. Krishnabhai preferred a personal rapport with students who sought his guidance to bring out the best in their work. How to enable and aid visual awareness through unconditional seeing of actual things, illustrations, reading of reference material and group reading was encouraging.

"His modest little home in the city felt like a Gurukul as he had established a personal connection with a number of students over the years, for individual communication. Several decades of our rapport and friendship made him a mentor which tuned my interests in life as well as art … His integrity, honesty and wisdom remained impervious to social status and public success which some of his artist-friends enjoyed. I loved his ever-so-friendly attitude, reason, simplicity and sense of humour. He pointed out artistic diversity and cultural richness of Indian art, artists, thought, traditions, crafts, films and music as an underlying strength of unity of a vibrant culture. I found a patient listener whom I could visit whenever I felt disappointed and was brooding. Sometimes our meetings lasted many hours until I left feeling better than before. Krishnabhai's deliberations and wisdom reinforced the meaning and reality of mindfulness in art as well as life.

"He remained unaffected by the fame, fortune and glory of his artist contemporaries. In fact he refrained from seeking academic promotions to become a reader or professor which surprised Prof. Sankho Chaudhuri who sometimes visited the Faculty as an external expert and as founding member of department of sculpture. When he realised that Krishnabhai had never been in the race he told him, "Itna bairag bhalo na!" …

"Chhatpar’s taste for individual freedom, artistic intentions and pursuit of excellence remained constant and personal. Over a decade ago he destroyed all his works in plaster, wax and photos with his own hands intending to get rid of vanity of artistic illusions as if to realize existence as the real art. Krishnabhai’s life reveals an unmatched lesson in the art of living.”

Chhatpar’s many students and admirers will be getting together on August 7 to go tp the banks of the Narmada where his ashes would be immersed as per his wishes. On August 8 they will come together at the Faculty of Fine Arts to plant a Krishna-Vad sapling in his memory.

Sandhya Bordewekar writes on contemporary art, architecture, heritage, food and life in general.

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