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Mild Machiavelli

Gargi Gupta  |  New Delhi 

Rakesh Shankar is a man of many parts. He's a joint secretary-level diplomat in the Union ministry of external affairs (on study leave now); he's a painter who has a number of solo exhibitions to his credit (one opened on 18 October at the Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi); he's a scientist and professor who has written tomes on environmental legislation and policy formulation, a subject in which he has a PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University; and he's a poet-writer, having published a collection of short stories in Hindi.
Ask Shankar, who signs his paintings "Rishi", and he refers to Flemish painter Reubens's description of himself: "I am a painter who works as a diplomat." And no, Shankar doesn't see any inherent contradiction between the two callings "" "You need to be creative in diplomacy as well," he says, "to come up with new ways to solve problems."
As an instance, he proudly cites having introduced 3,000 Marutis in Budapest during his stint in Hungary in the 1980s. These were apparently the first in Europe and opened the floodgates to the later bulk export of the small Indian car to Europe. "In fact," he continues, "as a culture, we lack creativity, because too much emphasis on tradition leads to an incapacity to change."
Shankar has had no formal training in painting. "I'm lucky that I didn't go to art school. Because if I did I would have ended up painting as the masters." In fact, the Canadian lady who conducted the two-month course that Shankar had at one point considered enrolling in saw his paintings and said as much "" that he painted fine and didn't need training.
Diplomacy, and its accompanying perk of having the opportunity to travel the world widely, have of course helped enrich Shankar's artistic sensibilities. "It has widened my horizons considerably." Not just in the sense of seeing the very best of the masters at galleries all over the world, and interacting with artists: Shankar was especially moved by the Zambian painters whom he met during his stint as head of chancery at the Indian high commission in Lusaka. They had no money to buy paints or canvases, and only their passion kept them going.
The foreign office has opened many doors for Shankar. He had his last exhibition at Riyadh, where he was posted as minister, commercial and trade, at the Indian embassy, and he recalls with pleasure the many women who came to see his works. "This was a country where the arts, music, dance are banned, and women never went anywhere."
But in one important respect, Shankar's diplomatic career has had no bearing on his painting. All of Shankar's paintings take their subjects from his preoccupation with philosophy and spiritualism. Indeed, before he became a diplomat (at his father's prodding), he was a professor of philosophy at the University of Allahabad. "I'd read Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, the vedas and upanishads very early in my youth and for a time, even became a sanyasi," Shankar recalls. It's not just the Indian mystical tradition "" Shankar also draws inspiration from Western mystics like the German Eckhart and Armenian-Greek Gurdjieff.
The present exhibition is called "Prakriti Purusha", that is, the two eternal realities which make up the world, according to Samkhya philosophy. Take the painting Kundalini Jagran, which depicts the outline of a male figure in the classic yogic meditation pose, with a female form in the foreground, her body studded with five flowers to denote the five kundalinis.
But what's most striking about Shankar's paintings is their dream-like quality, reinforced by his use of rich, vibrant, sometimes lurid colours "" indeed, Paul Cezanne and Salvador Dalí are two artists whom Shankar has liked. Shankar has found a name for his mode of painting "" neo-expressionism, wherein, he says, depicting the idea is of prime importance, far more than shapes, lines or colours.
Painting, needless to say, has been far more than a hobby. "I paint in the evenings, since I'm not the kind who goes out to parties, watches television, or goes to the movies. And if you have none of these to occupy you, it's amazing how much of work you can get done." It has had one more advantage, Shankar says with a smile. "My two sons have always seen me painting or reading. I'm sure it has helped them a lot to imbibe the right cultural values and explains why both of them are doing so well professionally."

First Published: Sun, October 28 2007. 00:00 IST