Recently, when I met a long-lost schoolmate, our unending do-you-remembers zeroed in on someone who went by the unlikely name of "Nachi Mama" — our Ancient Mariner — spinning fabulous tales from real life: his own.
"It was difficult to satisfy Stella Kramrisch," Nachi would laugh, showing us the Austrian art historian's book on temple sculpture, illustrated with his photographs. Describing his apprenticeship with Henri Cartier Bresson in Paris, he would sigh over his own pictures of Chola, Pallava and Jain murals, "The originals have faded so much."
Talking about the courses he took in theatre lighting (London, New York) he would say, quite impishly, "Laurence Olivier looked like everybody else, but on stage, under the lights, he became a mythic presence. I saw this when I worked as a stagehand in the Mermaid and Aldwych theatres in London." Chuckling over Allen Ginsberg's writings he declared, "I can't make head nor tail of Allen's poetry, but he had a wonderful smile!" His eyes misted when iconic tenor Luciano Pavarotti died, with whom he had bonded over some Lucullan repast in Rome.
How strange to hear about such an elite cast and international locations from a family friend — as if they were matters of everyday! His Tamil accent became even more pronounced when, late in life, C Nachiappan (1923- 2011) from mercantile Chettinad, adopted saffron dhoti and orange shawl as Kovilur Swami, the pontiff of a Vedantic mutt in Tamil Nadu. But the world was still his stage. Just as his love of the arts was tempered by a keen business sense, the renunciant retained his commercial astuteness, especially in continual – and highly successful—real estate dealings.
As a motherless schoolboy in the Besant Theosophical School and Kalakshetra, Madras, young Nachi was befriended by Dutch commercial artiste Conrad Woldring, who trained him in photography and graphic design. Soon Nachi decided that it was his mission to assist Rukmini Arundale in developing Kalakshetra, her arts institution. The first step was to document its photographs. His makeshift darkroom became a photo department. Kalakshetra Colour Laboratories scored many firsts, as in processing ektachrome transparencies. Clients included staff photographers from Time and Life magazines. Nachi went to the West to study new processes in photography, colour separation and printing. His love of the arts prompted his pursuit of such tech-mastery.
Nachi designed the Kalakshetra brochures, logo, organized/managed art festivals in India and abroad. He imported equipment and designed stage lights, which became the hallmark of the Kalakshetra dance dramas. He revived traditional sari designs in the weaving department and promoted dye research. Eventually, acrimonious disputes personal and legal, estranged Nachi from his mentor and alma mater.
His most enduring work was through Kalakshetra Publications (1947), bringing out Maria Montessori's books, and gems like the volume by artist Nandalal Bose. When his letterpress became outdated, Nachi refused to go with the techno-tide. New York celebrity painter Francesco Clemente found in him a "book artist" who could design exclusive limited editions in English monotype on handmade paper. The 50 individually crafted, hand-sewn, hand-bound miniature Hanuman Books — writings by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Willem de Kooning, Taylor Mead et al — became classics, as did Clemente's own large-scale tome with copperplate covers.
Once philosopher J Krishnamurti smilingly remarked to Nachi, "You haven't changed despite attending my lectures for 40 years!" Nachi retorted, with the tongue-in-cheek fellowship of having grown up on the same Theosophical Society campus, "Can everyone be as enlightened as you?" Despite his "swamihood", Nachiappan retained the same insouciance till the end, and a wide-eyed zest for ventures new.
The author is a playwright, theatre director, musician and journalist, writing on the performing arts, cinema and literature