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The last muse

Abhishek Bhatt | Updated on January 24, 2020 Published on January 24, 2020

"The painter was known as the 'soul capturer'" (Credit: ISTOCK.COM)   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

On the second floor of the famed Gothal Bagore museum on the fringes of Jaisalmer hangs a portrait of a woman garbed in a nondescript shawl, not dissimilar to ones you would see on a travelling Rajasthani gypsy. And yet, there is a certain regal air to her. The expression she wears is that of a deeply hurt soul who has just seen a glimmer of hope in a wretched existence. Above all, she is beautiful. It is no Mona Lisa, though. In fact, you would be forgiven for thinking what this painting was doing in the company of Husain and Varma and Tagore and Mehta’s finest creations. A majority of patrons fail to walk to the dimly lit southeast corner of the building where the piece hangs. But if you were to ask the museum curator, a nattily dressed septuagenarian, he would confidently declare it to be the most important painting in the Commonwealth.

The woman isindeed exceptionally beautiful on a second, closer look. You can’t fully decode the mysterious expression, but you feel like you know her intimately. But here again one would ask the curator — Why? What’s so special about the portrait?

The story goes: There once lived a painter named Laka, who was so skilled at bringing out the dormant emotions of his subjects on canvas that he was known as the ‘soul capturer’. Hordes of people used to expectantly wait to get their portraits done with him, in a queue that snaked from the middle of the town square right up till the edge of the desert. After one such long day of plying his trade, Laka wrapped up his tools in a leather satchel and headed for the hills to catch a break.

He could see the sand dunes in the horizon from the hills. An urban legend had it that the shifting sand dunes weren’t natural, they moved in the stealth of night depending on how many bodies were buried under, bodies of people who had committed minor indiscretions against their king. Laka never believed in it, the dunes were just too beautiful to conceal such violence, he contemplated. That is when he heard faint laughter. He followed that sweetest of sounds down to the palace boundary and peeked in. The owner of that voice was the young princess Myrah, enjoying a game of hopscotch with gay abandon. Her joy, the light in her eyes, and the spring in her step inspired the artist to immediately pull out his paintbrush to capture the scene. Laka sketched furiously under the rising moon, his trembling hands dumping away page after page of unsatisfactory results. Until it was time for the princess to go indoors, leaving Laka wondering — how could it be? For the first time in his life he wasn’t happy with what he had painted.

Consumed by this peculiar frustration of not being able to do justice to the princess’s beauty, Laka left his day job at the town square to secretly paint the young princess for months on end. On one such day, Myrah finally spotted him lurking in the bushes and ordered the guards to capture him at once.

His game was up, Laka thought, a commoner sneaking into palace grounds would be a dead man soon. To his surprise, the princess was genuinely curious about his art. Myrah was deeply impressed by his discarded paintings of her even as Laka insisted that they didn’t even begin to capture the princess’s essence.

Soon enough, a blissful relationship between the painter and his muse ensued. They would meet secretly and talk about everything under the sun amidst their portrait sessions. She was as far away from the caricature of royalty he had in mind — thoughtful, playful, a true lover of the arts. And his skills never ceased to amaze the princess. If there was one dampener to Laka’s exalted state, it was this: He still couldn’t produce the perfect portrait of the princess.

On a fateful night, their rendezvous was interrupted by the king himself. The menacing king’s guards surrounded them as Myrah stood in shock.

“So, you’re the capturer of souls, eh?”

“Your Highness, please accept my apologies, I’ll leave at once,” Laka said with a full bow, staring down at the king’s exquisite hunting boots.

“Not so fast,” said the king and proceeded to present Laka with a choice — either he leave the palace right then and go on with his life as a town painter, no harm no foul. Or, spend one more evening with the princess painting the portrait. If he were to pick the latter, said the king, Laka would have to leave the town forever.

“What would you choose?”

“Forgive me, your Highness,” Laka spoke softly, glancing at Myrah. “I’d happily give up the town for one more opportunity to do justice to the princess’s image.” The sand dunes beckon, he thought. Dejected yet defiant.

“Spoken like a true artist,” the king guffawed.

It was a trick question, though, and the king ordered him to be blinded. Legend has it that the painter was smothered by four carts full of desert sand until he was left howling and writhing on the ground. All the while, he clutched his paintbrush close to his chest.

Sickened by this macabre show, Myrah disowned her family and went on to live with Laka on the outskirts of the town in anonymity, mostly taking care of the blind painter she had come to love.

Years later, during an annual royal procession around town, the king spotted the princess and the painter while they were running an errand.

“Well, well...,” hollered the king as he halted the procession. “I am pleased to have you in our presence today. Would you honour us with a painting to mark the occasion, dear Laka?”

Myrah shuddered at being taunted so publicly and tried to hurriedly lead Laka away. Laka, for the first time since he had lost his eyesight, wrenched his hand away from her grasp. Calmly, he tried to find his bearings.

“Oh my dear subjects. See the famed painter struggling. Such is the fate of people who revolt against the master’s will.”

Laka had by now felt his way to his old painting spot. He knew there was a new painter in town who had occupied his erstwhile place of employment. He gestured to Myrah to come closer. The king went delirious with laughter as Laka grabbed the brush.

“Maybe I spoke too soon. It appears there is art left in the artist! This I have to see.”

Myrah’s eyes welled up as she pleaded with Laka to just come home with her and not be ridiculed in public anymore.

The king and his subjects started tittering at this. Myrah sobbed silently. But Laka was focused: In the aftermath of losing his sight, he had learnt how to shut out the entire world if he wanted. He thought of the first time he had seen her in the royal quarters. He thought of the day she led him out of the palace and abandoned all her royal comforts to be with him. His strokes almost felt like stabs at the canvas, he had never been surer about what he was painting. The tittering public slowly grew silent as they started to see his picture emerge. And later, were left stunned when he dropped the paintbrush to the ground and turned to Myrah.

“Is this you?”

He stepped away from the canvas as the town gasped. It was the most beautiful painting they had ever seen. Laka, the blind painter, knew that he had finally completed the elusive perfect portrait of his muse. The king was left speechless. Laka took Myrah’s hand and walked home.

Ask any historian about the king who ruled the desert land for half a century, says the curator with pride, they won’t be able to name him, much less dig up a single stone of his ruined castle. And yet here hung this painting, unscathed.

 

Abhishek Bhatt is a screenwriter and an award-winning media marketer based in New York. His debut novel ‘The Last Royals’ is forthcoming from HarperCollins India in 2020.

Published on January 24, 2020
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