Palmyra, and the story of a wandering artist

“Palmyra”

A solo show of Chrigel (Christian) Uhlmann is right now open for public at Kalai Illam, Tiruvannamalai. The show features his palm leaf sculptures and paintings. There are several exhibitions and interesting art works created all around the world. However, this particular show tells the story of the artwork that re-connects two friends who had lost touch with one another…

Christian Uhlmann / Photographer Unknown / EtP Archives
Christian Uhlmann painting (Swiss Alps) / Livio Piatti / Silver Gelatin Prints 1975/ EtP Archives

EtP’s archives has several images of Christian Uhlmann. These images are taken and donated by Abul Kalam Azad to the Trust. EtP’s interest is to archive the life and work of photographers and artists. That’s why we started excavating stories and anecdotes from Christian’s life ….. Even though, the present generation Indian artists will not be able to trace the hippie trail left behind by this maverick group of musicians and artists, their memorable voyage into our landscape is a story to be told and retold for generations to come.

Chrigel was born in Winterthur, Switzerland. Christian started painting at a young age. He was inspired by his father, a talented artist who taught him painting. A traveler by heart, Christian has explored different parts of the world and his road trips have taken him through many paths that cannot be traveled anymore. The fast changing geography in his life journey spanning polars, “from Alps to Arunachala” as he himself testifies, and a simplicity reminiscent of the ‘true hippie’ though at first glance is hard to comprehend, has a ubiquitous mystical correlation all through his works.

Christian Uhlmann with his colleagues at Zurich Art School, Switzerland / Photographer Unknown / 1974
Christian Uhlmann with his colleagues at Zurich Art School, Switzerland / Photographer Unknown / 1974

Hippie subculture

The hippie subculture was originally a youth movement that arose in the United States during the mid-1960s and spread to other countries around the world. Hippie fashions and values had a major effect on culture, influencing popular music, television, film, literature, and the arts. Since the 1960s, many aspects of hippie culture have been assimilated by the mainstream American society. The religious and cultural diversity espoused by the hippies gained widespread acceptance including eastern philosophy and spiritual concepts. The hippie legacy can be observed in contemporary culture in myriad forms, including health food, music festivals, contemporary sexual mores, and even the cyberspace revolution. The hippie movement was in its rise in Europe in the 1970s when it was facing the ‘after shock’ in America. In the year 1971, Christian started his journey from Switzerland in a fourteen seat matador van along with 7 other crew members. In this group of European hippies, most of them were musicians and two of them were talented painters. Their final destination was India…..

The Journey

Christian and his troupe reached India after traveling almost three months on road, from Swizz crossing over all of East Europe, passing Turkey, Greece, Tehran, Baghdad, Kabul, Karachi and Dharmashala by land. His travel was full of amazing experiences and adventures. Crossing over Bamyan Buddha or sitting in a café in Kabul or moving through the Waga border or meeting Dalai Lama in the road is almost next to impossibility now. During his first India was facing a war with Bangladesh. Just before the war he crossed the border and was staying put Dharmashala for almost two months. After the war, the group went to Nepal. The team separated in Nepal and Christian came alone to Banaras. Without any travel guide or direction books, Christian hoped to different places and he back to Swizz via Delhi. Christian fondly recollects, “Our life was music and art. All through the way we paint and make music, sing and dance. Freedom and passion was our spirit. Falling in love, saying good byes were all part of the travel… without mobile phone or internet, traveling in less trailed hidden terrains was indeed an enjoyable experience with all its inherent risks.” This trip lasted about year. Christian and his friends also did a trans-saharan trip (Senegal, Mally upto Algeria and return), after a short break in their country.

Christian Uhlmann / Photographer Unknown / Silver Gelatin Prints / EtP Archives
Christian Uhlmann with Ali (dog) / Livio Piatti / Silver Gelatin Prints / EtP Archives

His next trip to India was in the 1975s. This time it was in his own car, with his girlfriend. He with his usual mischievous said, “I remember my time in Afghanistan.. During those times, Afghanistan was full of cafés, people, vibrant culture and food… it was free and safe. The wilderness of Afghanistan terrain was so tough and heavy and by the time we reached Bamyan, my car got broken and my girl friend opted to stay back in Afghanistan. I still remember looking at the huge Buddha sculpture in Bamyan… alone, for a long time… . Although their original plan was to New Zealand with the turbulent changes, Christian continued his journey to India. His search for questions about self, life and love made him wander in the wilderness of the pilgrim towns of India, Varanasi, Puri etc., and he reached South India. Pondicherry, Mahabalipuram, Salem, Kanyakumari, Varkala etc., His trip was not following any designed course; he simply hopped from one place to another looking at the map. There were not many tourists that time and he simple had to choose some where to go based on a hunch. He continued this journey for almost four years and finally in the 1980s he returned back to Varkala, India looking for a place to settle for alteast few months. During this entire 5 years of travel, he didn’t stay in one place for longer than 2 weeks. His need for settling some where was evident. Christian says, “When I was wandering in the Varkala beach looking for a stay, somebody in the tea shop took me to a place. It was an ashram… I wasn’t looking for an ashram but then Hamsha Johannus de Reade called me and it was comfortable.. So I stayed there… He explained to me that there is a place in Italy. I also went to Italy and stayed at the ashram. I came back to Varkala in the year 1983 with an entry VISA to learn Advaita and Vedanta under the guidance of Hamsha Johannus de Reade, who was a disciple of Dr. Mess. Dr. Mess was known Sadhu Ekarasa and he was very much related to Ramana Maharishi and has taken several photos of Ramana Maharishi. Dr. Mess was a scholar from Holland. Although I never had any plans to become part of any ashram structure, I and Hamsha had very interesting conversations… I was not a conformist to his ideas and I didn’t take part in any of the ashram activities but opted to paint during my stay in Varkala…”

The art work

Photographer Abul Kalam Azad says, “In the year 2010, I was introduced to Christian Uhlmann (Krishna Das) by my artist friend Judith Beartshi, who is also from Switzerland. We met Christian at his home, a farm in the outskirts of Tiruvannamalai town. He was in his lungi, busily tending and milking the cows…. To me, he appeared as a half naked fakir…. Judith introduced me to Christian and informed about ‘where three dreams cross’, the exhibition in Winterthur museum where my works were being featured. Thus a casual introduction lead to a trusted conversation and Christian came forward to share his art and his treasured collection.., That’s when I saw these two identical portraits of Christian. The familiar strength of the lines and the composition struck my eyes. As an artist, I am always curious to know a fellow artist. I asked him with my usual loud and husky voice , “who is the artist?….” Christian replied with his innocent tone of a farmer, “I do not know…. I was enjoying my peak hippie time and I stayed in Varkala for few months. It must be 1983 or 1984. I used to stay in an ashram in Varkala. I often see a young local boy quietly drawing the surrounding and its people. I befriended him and as a gesture of friendship, he did two portraits of mine. I left Varkala and my wandering finally took me here (Tiruvannamalai). But I preserved these works and I have always been eager to meet Shibu again…..” I probed further. Finally, Christian said dramatically, “his name is Natesan… his father was having a commercial painting studio called Baby Natesan art or Baby art “.

I knew Shibu Natesan, he is now a noted contemporary Indian painter and lives in London.”

Drawing of Christian Uhlmann / Photographed by Abul Kalam Azad / EtP Archives
Drawing of Christian Uhlmann 1983 / Photographed by Abul Kalam Azad / EtP Archives

Shibu informed Abul, “Christian Uhlmann, was a friend for a short period of time in the mid 80s. This hard core hippie used to live in Kannuvashramam, which is situated on top of the Kakkalathu Hill, varkala. Once I traveled to Kovalam beach with him and spent a night there among his friends… I got a lot of attention at that night, being a winner of the chess game. Christian used to look like Durer (self portrait). I hope to meet him again next time when I visit Thiruvannamalai.”

Shibu never knew that his two drawings are being preserved for so many years in his favorite town Tiruvannamalai by a hippie wanderer…Christian never thought that he would meet this young artist who is now internationally acclaimed… Christian started coming to Tiruvannamalai in the year early 1980s. Since then he has been on and off to Tiruvannamalai every year and in the year 1993 he moved to Tiruvannamalai permanently. Even though Shibu is a frequent visitor to Tiruvannamalai, they both never knew that the other is in the same town. Yet, like a movie, these two artists are re-connected through an artwork… When Shibu visited Tiruvannamalai, Christian was not in town…. a phone call was not a possibility, as Christian is still that hippie, he hardly answers the phone.

The reunion

As part of the year-long ‘Photography and beyond’ exhibition series, EtP had organised a solo show of Christian Uhlmann.

"Palmyra" / Image (C) Leo James / EtP Archives
“Palmyra” / Image (C) Leo James / EtP Archives

Shibu Natesan inaugurated the show and the two friend met after a long time…

Christian Uhlmann and Shibu Natesan / Image (C) Leo James / EtP Archives
Christian Uhlmann and Shibu Natesan / Image (C) Leo James / EtP Archives
'Palmyra" / Image (C) Leo James / EtP Archives
‘Palmyra” / Image (C) Leo James / EtP Archives
Noted art historian and curator Johny Mullivilakom Lakshmanan at the Palmyra Show inauguration / image (C) Leo James / EtP Archives
Noted art historian and curator Johny Mullivilakom Lakshmanan at the Palmyra Show inauguration / image (C) Leo James / EtP Archives

Christian still keeps the original legacy of hippie life style in Tiruvannamalai. In 1994, Christian left Kannuvashramam and married Rani, a local Tamil woman. Together they manage the 2 acre farm in Tiruvannamalai. They together have traveled to the Himalayas, Europe and many other places. His mother was working in a psychiatry hospital and his sister works as an editor. His brother-in-law was the city mayor. His brother is a builder. As far as our Christian is concerned, he had been a cow-boy in Alps, post man in Arts school, assistant in a bale troupe… and in life he was an all time wanderer and artist…. Christians works have been exhibited in one of prominent galleries run by UBS along with Wassily Kandinsky. Carl Neukom, a German who was part of UBS has collected Christians paintings and also has been a sole patron for Christian for a long time.

The life and lifestyle of Christian is hard to comprehend and follow now. He often says, “I don’t know any spirituality.. I think the world is my ashram… I don’t know whether I am an artist… I paint for my own joy!!! I plant seeds and know that it will grow…”

The show is open for public until 25th September 2014. ALL ARE WELCOME.

Disclaimer: All the images published in this blog is copyrighted property of the author and belongs to EtP Archives. Prior permission is required to reproduce and / or and / or print in any form. If you need more information contact EtP at {0}4175 237405 / {0}94879 56405 / ekalokam@gmail.com

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