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October 18, 2015

The Most Incredible Rise of Blitzvin of Batanrush

Illustrations by Amit Biswas

Through an unexpected twist of fortune, humble art student Blitzvin of Batanrush morphs into the darling of the art circuit. Exclusively for Verve, Waswo X. Waswo pens a humorous short story that gives a glimpse into the workings of the world of colours and canvases

  • Waswo X. Waswo, Blitzvin of Batanrush
  • Waswo X. Waswo, Blitzvin of Batanrush
  • Waswo X. Waswo, Blitzvin of Batanrush

Blitzvin had been interested in art since her childhood. When young, she had whiled away hours drawing her native town of Batanrush…its little houses with smokestacks and its ageing, half-dead trees. She hadn’t been the greatest of drawers, but she persisted. Blitzvin was not particularly good in school; in fact, Blitzvin was not particularly good at anything. She lagged in science and math, but her teachers encouraged her with art. It was, after all, one of the few things the poor girl was mildly proficient at.

It took all of Blitzvin’s talents of persuasion to convince her ageing mother (a widow on a pension) to send her away to Bolthank Semi-Accredited University (BSU) in the nearby town of Bolthank. Indeed, it took a bit of crying, a long talk between her mother and her 10th standard teacher Miss Batsvin, and Blitzvin’s solemn promise to do her best to make something out of her fascination with art. “Mother, if nothing else I will come home with a degree that is easy to get. Do you think I can do any better? Maybe a degree in art from BSU will allow me to one day become a window decorator at the Bolthank Mega-Mall. Think of how proud you will be!” Her mother had eventually relented and young Blitzvin eagerly packed her bags for the big town of Bolthank.

At Bolthank Semi-Accredited University, the eager young Blitzvin discovered a new world. The Department of Applied and Imaginative Arts was amazingly freethinking. Waves of new ideas rushed into her like the crisp cool air of the Bolthank breeze. Blitzvin soon discovered a love for art history. She actually began to read one or two books (she had never before read books that had not been assigned), and one day she woke up for the very first time with a dream of becoming a real artist. Being an artist was no longer just an escape from the rigours of school trigonometry, physics, and calculus. Being an artist, the young girl suddenly realised, was a sort of a divine calling. She, the humble young girl from Batanrush, knew she must heed to that call.

Blitzvin applied all of her energy towards learning the history of art. Unfortunately, her own skills did not match the craftsmanship evident in the works of the ‘old masters’ that she was now coming to know through books. She worked harder and harder at perfecting her skills of observation, composition, and draughtsmanship, but it just didn’t seem she had the innate ability. One day, when Blitzvin was particularly depressed about this fact, she noticed the ever-so-handsome Blivner Bochner, an Advanced Student, looking over her shoulder. Blitzvin was mortified that he was seeing her unfinished sketches! But Blivner just smiled and put his hand upon her shoulder. “Why do you work so hard at these sketches, Blitzvin?” he had asked. “Do you really think you will learn to work like the ‘old masters’? Even our teachers cannot work like that. Don’t you know what you are doing is completely unnecessary? It is your ideas that count! Concentrate on your ideas! That is all that is important!”

Just a year later, when Blitzvin entered the Advanced Class, she realised how true these words were. To her surprise, the students in her class were quite dismissive of what she felt were her best drawings and paintings. “That work is purely illustrative!” one had declared. Another, a smart young girl from the cosmopolitan town of Noychnya, had added, “You are just a craftsman! This is not art! Art must have ideas!” Thankfully, the handsome Blivner Bochner, who was by now an unofficial assistant to Professor Blatskya, came to her rescue. He grabbed what Blitzvin thought was one of her worst drawings. It was a drawing that was coffee-stained, and crumpled and torn because she had almost thrown it away! But handsome Blivner held it aloft for the rest of the class to see. “Look at this work!” Blivner Bochner had declared. “It tells a story of anguish and heartbreak! Look how shaky and imprecise is the line! This work speaks of frailty and nervousness in the face of great tragedy. The tragedy of small-town Blotsvia!” Blitzvin had blushed with embarrassment, but she also realised her classmates were cooing with approval. “Yes,” chimed in the cosmopolitan girl from Noychnya, “That is her best work. Perhaps this girl from Batanrush will yet become an artist!”

As the months proceeded in the Advanced Class at BSU, young Blitzvin learned so very much. She learned that art was concept and not skill, idea and not work. Students who insisted on trying to paint like the ‘old masters’ she once had so diligently studied were derided as derivative, nostalgic, and obsessed with “mere craft”.  For her Examination Exhibition, Blitzvin carefully selected the simplest of her drawings, and the least worked of her paintings. She concocted elaborate stories about their meanings. She not only passed her final exam, she won a prize! She graduated with pride.

It was at this time that a letter arrived from Blivner Bochner. He had graduated the year before, and now worked as Assistant-to-the-Chief-Assistant at the Government Hall of Prestigious Exhibitions in Noychnya. To Blitzvin’s delight the handsome young Blivner remembered her! In his letter he explained that he had a “certain relationship with the Honourable Director of the GHPE, and that it was within his power to secure her an exhibition at this venerable Blotsvian institution! Poor Blitzvin shook with delight and fear. She wiped a tear from her eye. Such opportunities came to few!

But what to show?! She hadn’t enough work, and still had lingering doubts over her own abilities. Then she remembered her photography! She had rolls and rolls of film, taken with an old Blotsvian MegaFlex camera! Blitzvin knew photography was becoming a rage in Blotsvian art circles. She dashed off with a handful of film to the local processing lab and handed over five rolls. “Blow them up as big as you can!” she had ordered. She was disappointed to learn that the biggest the local lab could print was 70 x 100 Blotsvian Inches. But it would have to do.

When the colour photographs were delivered to her door a few days later she eagerly went through them one by one. She carefully discarded those images that looked too pretty. She had learnt by now that an artist needed to always avoid the beautiful. “These 20 will be just right,” she thought, “There is nothing illustrative or pretty about any one of them!” Blitzvin carefully packed the selected photographs and sent them off via courier to Noychnya. She spent the next few days writing a lengthy ‘artist statement’ explaining the depth and layers of meaning in her selected work. Reading all of those art history books and contemporary art journals was proving helpful after all!

But something happened, as something always does, especially in a place like Blotsvia. Blitzvin had made the mistake of labelling her parcel HANDLE WITH EXTREME CARE and FRAGILE ART ENCLOSED. It was, of course, intercepted by the Provincial Inter-Provincial Customs Authority (PIPCA) at the border of the Province of Noychnya. It was late during the night shift when the officiating customs regulator opened the parcel. The word ART had caught his attention, and he dreamed of finding a magnificent oil painting with which he could adorn his home. ‘Lost in Transit’ was always such a convenient explanation! In fact he had a rubber stamp that said just that! But to his dismay he had found Blitzvin’s profoundly unbeautiful photographs.

That night the men at the PIPCA of Noychnya made the most rude and uneducated remarks about poor Blitzvin’s art! They handled the photographs with complete disrespect, grimacing with disbelief at how dull and lifeless they were, and wrinkling their noses as they asked each other, “This is what someone calls ART”? As the night wore on the officers of PIPCA (and their subordinates and sub-subordinates) passed more and more good Blotsvian Blanko Blanko beer around, swilled good Blotsvian Fermented Bleacheno, and made more and more fun of Blitzvin’s fuzzy photographs. The more they drank the more amusing they found her ‘art’. They were by now carelessly throwing the pictures upon the floor, and peons came by who threw them into dustbins. It was not until late the next morning that the PIPCA officers sobered up and felt some remorse. A few of the more dutiful men thought to uncrumple the now totally destroyed photographs. “Let us pack them again and send them on their way,” suggested one of the sub-subordinates. “No real harm done,” offered another. When Blivner Bochner opened Blitzvin’s parcel the following afternoon, in the prestigious secondary offices of the Government Hall of Prestigious Exhibitions (GHPE), he let out a little gasp and shuddered with disbelief.

The opening was of course a gala affair, as only Noychyna knows how to give gala affairs. Glasses tickled with the best Blotsvian Chenko Chenko that Blotsvian Bulliwarks can buy. Raw Blotsvian Botuui Fish was served on dainty skewers. Everyone waited for the entrance of the amazing young artist from Batanrush. Poor Blitzvin entered this scene with no knowledge of what had befallen her works in the office of the PIPCA of Noychnya! When she entered the grand exhibition hall of the GHPE, she stood momentarily aghast. Her works were displayed in ruins! Yes, they had been properly mounted under glass, but it was obvious that they had been destroyed! The photographs were bent, torn, fingerprinted, coffee-stained, and dribbled with what looked like the gravy of Blotsvian Beanoguk! A scream of horror and outrage was about to escape her lips when Madame Vlitinknya, Noychnya’s most esteemed art critic, swept up to her side and made a gracious bow. “Your works are superb! I have never seen an artist so question the sterile ‘factuality’ of photography! I know exactly what concerns you and you have addressed the problem with aplomb! You have mixed the mere image of mundane existence with the gritty reality of mundane existence! You have captured life as we suffer it in Blotsvia! My hearty congratulations, my dear!”

As Blitzvin was recuperating from both her initial shock, and the effulgent praise from Noychnya’s most respected critic, the handsome Blivner Blochner strode up smiling confidently. “I knew you had talent…but I never expected that first crumpled drawing I saw of yours was the beginning of your style! I am being credited with discovering you my dear! I have been promoted from Assistant-to-the-Chief-Assistant to Assistant-in-Chief,” and then he muttered in confidence, “I think I am on my way to the top!”

It was only three months later that Blitzvin was being scheduled for a solo exhibition at the Galleries Blitin & Blotin in the capital city of Blotzinkin. Little was it known that one of the proprietors of Blitin & Blotin was in fact Madame Vlitinknya’s half-sister Mildred. Madame Vlitinknya and Mildred Blotin worked in tandem, so exhibitions at the Galleries Blitin & Blotin were guaranteed good reviews. Before the proposed exhibition (Blitzvin: New Work) the two women had sequestered Blitzvin and given her counsel. “We want canvases! Your photographs went over just fine at the GHPE in Noychyna, but did you sell any? This is Blotzinkin, the very capital of Blotsvia! The collectors will demand canvases!”

“But I don’t know how to paint! At least not well!” protested the stunned young Blitzvin. “People will see that I have no skill!”

“Nonsense!” Blotin and Vlitinknya had replied. “We will have someone paint them for you! Blotsvian craftsmen are very cheap! Just give us some more of those precious and inspired photographs, and we will have them painted on canvas for you! You are a genius my dear! Real artists are too busy conceptualising to paint their own canvases! Everyone knows that! Well…not everyone.” The two gave each other a wink and a laugh. They were obviously referring to Blitin, who was wealthy enough to be a partner in the gallery, but took little actual interest in its day-to-day routine (his main function was to buy a work from each and every show Blitin & Blotin mounted, thus securing the first ‘sale’). Bliztvin was confused, but did not want to disappoint. She knew she was on the way to becoming a real artist! Her mother would be proud! A day later she returned with the prints derived from five more rolls of MegaFlex film.

Three months later, 20 large canvases were delivered to her doorstep (the gallery had provided her with a small studio space in a not-so-fashionable part of town). She unrolled the glossy new paintings, signed them, and then set about crumbling them, tearing them, pouring Blanko Blanko beers upon them, burning them with cigarettes, and, new in her repertoire, smearing tomato sauce in a few strategic areas. “There,” she said to herself, “They are finished! And my work really is superb! It really is! After all, these were my ideas! My vision! And it is I who have made them come into physical form!” Unbeknownst to dear Blitzvin, the advocates at Galleries Blitin & Blotin were kept constantly busy threatening the “makers” (as they termed the mere craftsmen) to uphold the secrecy and non-disclosure clauses in their contracts.

It was not long after Blitzvin’s sold-out Blitin & Blotin show that her career accelerated at breakneck speed. The location of the gallery in Blotsvia’s capital city ensured a steady stream of foreign visitors. Assorted international collectors, official dignitaries, ambassadors and cultural attachés were frequent guests, as were curators from prestigious international museums. The rising young art star of Blotsvia, always snobbishly referred to as just “Bliztvin” (as if anyone ought to know that name) or ‘Blitzvin of Batanrush’ (for those deemed less cognisant), was beginning to exhibit worldwide. And the graph of her auction sales was zooming off the charts. In fact, the pressures of the many scheduled shows were so great that poor Blitzvin was finding it hard to keep up. It seemed that each and every gallery expected new work. It seemed that each and every gallery expected both something ‘new’ but also something identifiable with her ‘brand’ (she liked to think it a style!). In spite of the addition of umpteen new assistants, Blitzvin slaved for hours in her studio (which was actually much more like an office), making Skype calls to curators, writing ever more convoluted artist statements, drinking Chenko Chenko straight from the bottle as she smoked good Blotsvian cigarettes…and struggling to keep up with the hard work of ‘ideation’ as she now haughtily referred to her primary talent.

Blitzvin was no longer the innocent young girl from Batanrush. She had become a sensation, and she relished it. The day she bumped into Blivner Bochner, at an opening in the Galleries Bliton & Blotin, she had actually cold-shouldered him. How could she give a mere Assistant-in-Chief at the GHPE (in lowly Noychnya!) a warm welcome, especially in front of the likes of the Director of the National Museum of Periphersthan! Why, it might give the impression that she actually associated with such common people! Yes, her work might speak of the mundane lives of common Blotsvians, but she of course had risen above that! In fact, she had just received an invitation for a solo exhibition at the Centre Pompusque in Partisthan! It was inconceivable that people think she was charmed by the likes of a poor, pathetic peon like Blivner!

But the Pompusque! What an honour and what a responsibility! What was she to show? This was the most momentous challenge the talented Blotsvian artist had ever faced. In the dark of the night she took her private car and her private driver and made the long journey back to BSU in Bolthank. There she arranged a clandestine meeting with Professor Blatskya. “I need your help!” She frankly declared. “You are so well versed in art history and contemporary art practices! But you stay isolated and don’t actually know anyone in the ‘scene’! I want you to conceptualise my exhibition at the Pompusque! This is beyond my capacities for ideation! You will, of course, have to sign a contract of secrecy and non-disclosure.” Professor Blatskya was at first taken aback. But he slowly grinned and spoke in a meaningful voice, “You have learned so well, my dear. Who would have thought you were to become my best student? I have admired your progress in the world of art from afar. Your talents at painting are beyond my own! It would be an honour to assist you.” Blitzvin breathed a silent sigh of relief. She had feared this encounter, but now she felt comfortable. She wondered if Professor Blatskya knew that she did not paint her own paintings. Did he truly admire her work? Later that night, as she turned for the door, the Professor had thrown out one last question, “How much will I be getting paid?” Blitzvin turned, unshaken, “You need to negotiate that with my handlers. Please call the gallery tomorrow, and make sure you speak only with Blotin.”

Little did Blitzvin of Batanrush know that her much anticipated exhibition at the Pompusque had been approved only after great debate. The Grand Committee of Grand Committees (that decided such things) was not at all unanimous. There had been voices of objection. It was once shouted, “This is not the kind of show that brings in the revenues we require! And you know it!” At another time a voice was heard to exclaim, “Everyone is interested in Ponksvian art this year! What are we doing filling our schedule with this Blotsvian?” But wiser voices had prevailed. “The Centre Pompusque has never in its history presented a solo exhibition by a Blotsvian artist. What is more, Blitzvin of Batanrush is a woman! And you know how those damn feminists have been breathing down our necks!”

The evening of the vernissage for Blitzvin: An Ever-Emerging Retrospective in the hallowed halls of the Centre Pompusque, in the Partisthan capital of Posh, Blitzvin strolled confidently into the crowd of socialites wearing a perfectly stunning coffee-and-beer-stained creation by the Blotsvian designer Bruffecto. Yes, her style and her ideation were being copied, stolen, counterfeited and commercialised. Blitzvin T-shirts stacked the shelves of the Pompusque’s gift shop. Blitzvin was being seriously discussed in the art history courses of Partisthan art academies. And she loved it! She swirled amid the cameras and the crushing journalists and strode boldly into the thick of the glitterati. A toast was proposed by the Director of the Pompusque: “To Blitzvin of Batanrush! Not only does she represent the best that Blotsvian Art has to offer, she represents the best of art today!”

Bliztvin stood with her glass held high in the air. Her head swirled. It seemed the entire room was beginning to circle around. She was vaguely aware of the fact that she had not yet seen her own paintings. She had not yet read her own artist statement!

She wanted to! But there were too many admirers! She felt herself growing faint. She was longing for something…but she didn’t know what. And then she realised just what it was! She was so thirsty for a good cold Blotsvian Blanko Blanko! And a heaping bowl of Blotsvian Beanoguk! But the room continued to swirl, and she knew she couldn’t find those things in Partisthan.

The American artist and writer Waswo X. Waswo has lived and travelled in India for over 16 years, and has made his home in Udaipur, Rajasthan, for the past nine. There he collaborates with a number of artists, including the photo hand-colourist Rajesh Soni and the miniaturist R. Vijay.  Waswo is best known for addressing issues of collaboration and ‘Otherness’ in his art, as well as his vast personal collection of Indian printmaking.

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