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Adrift with Nature

It takes a painter to reproduce scenic beauty on canvas, a sculptor to give it a three-dimensional form. But it only needs an artistic vision and plenty of diligence to spot the sculptures Nature has so generously floated down her streams and rivers and present them in all their glory. ANJANA RAJAN takes a look round Tommy Varghese's driftwood collection... .

Photo: Sandeep Saxena.

A visitor at Driftwood exhibition by Colonel Tommy Varghese. Photo: Sandeep Saxena.

PLACED AROUND one of the galleries of the Lalit Kala Akademi recently were beautiful objects that looked like wooden sculptures. There was nothing surprising about this since the Akademi regularly plays host to art exhibitions. What was different about this show was that the decorative objects were not sculptures in the normal sense but pieces of driftwood collected from different parts of India by Colonel Tommy Varghese, a medical officer in the Army currently posted in Delhi. Mounted on pedestals, some sleek and shining, others in matt hues, with suggestive names like `Flame', `Perplexed', `Child Care', `Seducer', `The Dual', there was not a piece that did not contain an aesthetic balance of shape, a flowing line, soothing colours - yet the colonel emphasises he is merely a collector, not a sculptor.

Converting random pieces of driftwood into pieces of art is a painstaking process. Found along riverbeds and seashores, the pieces are first washed with water. "I do not use any preservatives, only water," says the colonel, who believes that Nature being the creator of this beauty is capable enough of preserving it too. Cutting or sawing off the parts considered redundant and brushing off the debris are the next stages. Sometimes wax is applied to give the piece a shine. However, this is an optional exercise since the wood has become so hard and strong during its natural seasoning process that it is in no danger of being attacked by insects or time.

"Till I joined the services, I had never seen or heard of driftwood," recalls Colonel Varghese, who hails from Kerala and feels that wood being an important fuel and therefore scarce in his home State is the reason for driftwood collection not being feasible there. When he was posted to Assam in 1974, he saw one of his fellow officers pursuing this hobby. Attracted by its inherent creativity, he learnt the rudiments from his colleague. Two years later Varghese was posted to Andaman and Nicobar where he discovered the quality of the wood was much higher than in Assam. Here he was able to pursue his newfound hobby with greater zest and even gleaned some knowledge of the wood of the region, thanks to the horticulture centre there. The driftwood of these islands comes primarily from the Padok, a variety of rosewood that comes in numerous shades of brown, yellow, black and white.

Some of the specimens he exhibited at Lalit Kala Akademi were in multiple shades. This amalgam of colours too is natural, he maintains One, alluringly titled `Love Forever', is a combination of dark and light brown. Such pieces come from the roots of the rhododendron, explains the intrepid collector who knows from his experience in the Indo-Tibetan border region that this plant is a creeper at high altitudes and a tree at heights of 6000 to 8000 feet.

"All this is created by Nature. I never take credit for it," avers Colonel Varghese about his collections that have been exhibited in cities like Amritsar, Jalandhar, Lucknow and Pune. Though he appreciates the artistic element in foreseeing a theme when selecting the piece of wood, then cutting off the unwanted portions to make it emerge, he insists: "If you give me a piece of wood (to carve), I think I will be lost."

Lost perhaps, but certainly happy to be adrift.

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