I heard so much about the amazing paintings and sketches stored at my Guru’s home and he finally invited me to visit. I heard that Guruji has thousands of sketches and that some of his hidden paintings are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. I suspected that some of those rumours were exaggerated but that did not stop me from feeling extremely excited about the visit.
I grabbed a tuk-tuk (auto rickshaw) and headed towards the leafy neighborhood where the Ramdevs live. I arrived at a three-story house that looked nice and new. I could not find a doorbell and so I followed the sounds, walking up the stairs all the way to the roof. I found a woman hanging laundry. When she saw me, she started to giggle. I wasn’t sure if she was embarrassed or was laughing at me. She pointed to a door, opened it and announced something in Hindi to the folks inside. I later learned that the woman was Guruji’s wife; a giggly and pleasant woman.
I entered the living room and greeted two little boys, ages 5 and 8. Guruji walked in wearing just his white cotton “harem pants” and a sleeveless undershirt. He motioned for me to come in to his bedroom. Feeling confused, I looked to his wife, who was also motioning me in. I put away my discomfort and entered the sunny room. The bed was made and Guruji invited me to sit next to him on a small sofa by the window. He showed me his morning workstation and the sketch he had been working on that day. We both had our sugar-free chai (“fiki”) and talked about his morning routine. The two boys came in and I learnt that one is Hamu’s son and the other is Shamu’s. They were heading out to school, dressed in cute little blue uniforms. As soon as they left the room, Hamu walked in looking all puffy-eyed. He said he’d been up too late last night kiting and celebrating, of course.
Guruji took me downstairs to show me his impressive art collection. As I walked out of the bedroom, I was greeted by another smiling woman, who I learnt was Shamu’s wife. She was followed by two young girls, aged 12 and 15. I didn’t figure out whose children they were, as Guruji was in a hurry to get going. We walked down one set of stairs and entered a small room with two closets full of books. They were not displayed, but rather simply stacked on top of each other with the titles turned to the side. He showed me one book in particular about Jaipur. He told me that Ramu had designed and illustrated the cover.
The book was lovely, showcasing all one would want to know about Jaipur—its history, art, textiles, neighbourhoods. It was not yet released for sale and would be priced at around US$200[i]. Some of the books Guruji showed me were out of print or limited edition publications. His collection was worth a small fortune.
Finally, I was invited to visit the legendary basement, where the Ramdevs keep all of their rare and priceless paintings. There were more than I could fathom, and they were spectacular. The amount of detail and use of gold leaf and precious stones bedazzled my eyes. The Ramdev brothers collaborate a lot and use a special Indian yellow colour that glows using UV light.
I have no idea where they find the time to work on these projects as they seem to work seven days a week at City Palace. I was in awe and asked to take some photos, knowing this privilege is rarely given by elite miniaturists. They tend to be paranoid about copyists and guard their work like a treasure that it is. Guruji permitted me to take a few choice shots, which I decided to not post in their entirety.
I spent the whole day at the house, mainly because a City Palace camera crew was scheduled to arrive to the Ramdevs’ home to interview them about the future of miniature art. I was invited on camera too – a Canadian artist studying Jaipur and Rajasthani art. I was not prepared for the interview and I had a huge pimple on my face but I agreed nonetheless. What an honour it was to be interviewed with my guru and his family. I discussed my background in classical Arabic calligraphy and my interest in spiritual art forms. The interviewer asked me, what was my purpose in coming to Jaipur? Surrounded by light, gorgeous paintings and the Royal Palace painters—my teachers—I really did not know what to say. What could I say? I am here to get a glimpse of something that is beyond physical existence, more intangible than history and is nothing less than a path of sacrifice and total surrender?- I concealed my real sense of awe that intimidated me as I faced this humongous tower of miniatures that at any point could have collapse over my head and I said something brief and marketable.
The day was long and, at one point, I escaped the commotion to go upstairs. Guruji’s wife offered me dal and fruits, which was exactly what I needed. During my stay in India, I have become a huge fan of vegetarian Indian food, but of all things I experienced so far, I was really taken by the communal living arrangements I have encountered. I am surely romanticizing this subject but as a guest, I only got to see the best aspects of communal living; companionship, shared responsibility, inter-generational conversations and a grounded sense of the cycle of life. It may be so but Vivek, Ramu's nephew, once told me jokingly that communal living is precisely the reason that meditation originated in India!
At the end of my visit, I met one of Ramu’s sons and his cousin; one is studying hospitality and the other business. From our conversation, it seemed that the young Ramdev boys were not interested in painting, but that the young women in the family were. I am so interested to see the legacy of this family and the future of miniature painting through their children. I wonder if the next Palace painters will be the Ramdev women—wouldn’t that be awesome?
[i] I missed the release of “Jaipur: Gem in India” at the Jaipur Literature Festival on January 20th, 2014. I only visited the Festival on the 18th and 19th.