Notes on Antique Textiles, Folk Art & Timeless Traditions – Jaina Mishra
In my short journey in collecting that does not span even a decade, I have interacted with several collectors, through forums and personal meetings.
The most inspiring person I have met in this little group is Mr. P or P.bhai.
In my experience until then, collectors are people who are endowed with a good measure of vanity and self-applause, can be moderately competitive – ‘my-art-is-better-than-yours’ – and also enjoy winning the battle of acquisition. Of course, all this jungle behavior is well camouflaged in civility and courtesy – since one must have not only a sufficient disposable income but also an inclination towards art to join this group – these factors are usually associated with some age and also well-mannered external behavior. For most, the hunt and the acquisition provide as much entertainment as the art itself…
But P.bhai is different. I visited his shop through the serendipitious directions of strangers: first a gorgeous village girl I a bombay local train was cajoled into telling me where I could get some ankle binders just like hers and she completely misguided me to a location in central Mumbai; a planned and vigorous hunt revealed no such ankle binders but storekeepers in that area redirected me to another crowded bazaar in south Bombay and I was determined so I went on hunting to misguided location number 2; and finally after fruitlessly enquiring at at least a dozen shops in the south bombay bazaar, someone directed me to P.bhai’s shop in a third location and I found myself seated before beautiful old things. The ankle binders still did not reveal themselves, but the beauty that lies in P.bhai’s shop more than compensated for their absence.
My first impressions make me ashamed when I think of that episode now- but I learnt a very valuable lesson that day. The store is no bigger than 100 square feet, (real estate in Mumbai is among the highest priced in the whole world). There is a separating glass table which divides the room into two lengthwise sections – the buyers and the sellers – and in that space there were 3 people in the sellers space – all standing. The senior most gentleman attended to me – about 80+ years old. I was excited and in a bit of a state of delirium at finding the place and its wonderful stock after the tedious hunt! And I asked about one article and then another and then another. And the old salesman did justice to each object – telling me a little about the history, and the geography and all the stories he knew about the object. My questioning continued, about one article and then the next and then the next. Until I wore him down. Educating me was about to become his lifetime project, if he didn’t put an end to it quickly! So he started clamming up. And this annoyed me. I saw the other 2 salesmen and tried to draw them into the discussion, but they left the arena to the older gentleman. I conjectured that the old man was an employee and the smarter looking others were the owners. I toyed with the idea of voicing my complaint to the younger men, in the spoilt-moneyed-housewife-brat style, but rejected the idea since I didn’t want it to be a case of paradise found-paradise lost so quickly.
So I reigned in my urge to ask ask and ask, and concluded the sale and went home happily. In two weeks I returned and then again and then again. And over time I discovered the facts as I got to know them better. Facts that shame me for my initial impressions based on mere looks.
P. bhai is the owner of the store – the father figure. A silent old man, dressed so simply that it would be easy to mistake him for an ordinary man in every way. But P. is not ordinary. At all. He is the self taught expert on his subject and his name appears in every book written on the subject in India. His home has more books on the subject than furniture for his family. He does not speak English but he has read every book on the subject in English by learning the language on his own. He is an acknowledged seat of knowledge in his subject. He also probably has the best collection of rare pieces in his category.
But that’s not the important thing – what impressed me was his attitude. He is a simple man. He lives and dresses simply. And takes a fixed percent of profit, even though the market can bear twice the amount. He is completely smitten by his subject, and when he speaks of his subject, the history of that kingdom comes alive – and the listener is drawn into tales of greed and stolen brides and royal murders and discoveries. That little 100 square feet of space in one of the world’s most crowded bazaars, becomes a charming history classroom where students pay rapt attention! P. loves his collection. And he loves the history that gave him this collection.
He has traveled hundreds of kilometers in run down shared tempos on rough roads in interior India with strangers – just to go see a fort that he had read about. He is more than 80 years old.
He has no ego and speaks with so much humility that it is easy to make the mistake I made on my first visit. He has no idea of his worth to the world or of his contribution to the world. He is just living his passion, consumed by his love for his collection, unaware of the societal games.
He belongs to a unique genre of collectors, who practice simple living and high thinking!
Through him I learnt not to judge a person by the visual data alone. I am fortunate that I held my tongue the first day, or else I would have lost the opportunity to know one of the most inspiring men I have met!