My meeting with him was incidental. It (just) happened.
When I was posted to Tezpur in the December of 2000, I had to leave behind my family in Delhi to avoid disruption in our son’s studies. He was in the XI standard then, and had to appear in the board exams in the following year.
In the Exotic East it was rather difficult for a forced bachelor (that is the term commonly used in the Air Force for an Air Warrior separated temporarily from his family) to spend the time after work hours. I had taken to serious golfing to put my spare time to good use but then, there were days when weather stymied that effort.
It was one of those days when, although it was not raining, the golf course was flooded and I had little to do. So I started my scooter and headed aimlessly towards the sleepy town of Tezpur. I stopped en route to visit Sapan Das. I thought I’d buy one of those wooden rhinos sold at his complex. Normally I would have requested one of my colleagues to buy one for me.
Hidden from view, a little off the road among the trees was his set up. A better word would be ‘Ashram’––‘Ashram’, because he used to sculpt his masterpieces in that serene environment. He had mastered the art of carving a rhino in wood. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he could carve a rhino with his eyes closed. All his creations were identical to the minutest detail––only the size varied.
Everyone posted in the region used to buy one for self and more for gifting. It was almost a ritual, and I had gone there to fulfil it.
In his hamlet among the trees, there was a low platform, half the size of a volleyball court, covered with a thatched roof. He sat there on the floor engrossed in chiselling a piece of wood. He greeted me with a smile and pointed at a cane chair opposite him.
“Dada, I have come to buy a rhino,” I said, as I sat down.
“Sure Sir, please choose one from those kept on the shelves,” he pointed at a rack. It amazed me that he was looking at me while his deft fingers worked unceasingly on his next masterpiece. Awestruck, I postponed the selection of a piece and sat down again in the chair and started observing the master.
I sat mesmerised for the greater part of an hour.
The spell broke when Sapan Das took a break. Otherwise a quiet person, he opened up when I made small talk over a cup of tea. He had won several national and international awards for his work. He had also been training youth in the area. A large number of them were learning the art from him. I sat for another hour looking at him work. I bought a rhino and returned to the Air Force Station only to come back to Sapan’s abode the next day.
Golf, my passion, had taken a back seat.
My second day at his premises: he was amused at me watching him work so intently. Soon it became a routine. I would visit him whenever time permitted and just watched him work. It used to be a soothing experience; next best to a round of Yoga.
Then, one day, I asked him, “Dada, why do you carve only rhinos? Why not any other thing?”
“Because it represents our region; it symbolises Assam. Besides, it sells and generates funds for me to train these children.”
“For a change, why don’t you carve something else?”
“What else?” He was quizzical.
“I’ll get something for you.”
The next day, I brought a clay dog for him to copy. For him, it was a refreshing change. He got down happily to carving a replica. While he did so, I took a piece of wood with his permission and tried my hand at woodcarving with my Swiss Knife. This amused Sapan Das to no end. He encouraged me by giving me a chisel and a larger piece of wood to carry to my room and work on it in my own time.
A few days later, when I went to collect the wooden dog, I surprised Sapan Das with my work––a statue of Ganesha. He was mighty happy with my maiden effort. He appreciated my work and wax-polished it for me.
I continued visiting Sapan for the rest of my stay in Tezpur.
Observing me learning woodcarving, one of my men too got interested. He was talented and picked up the art really fast. I was delighted when he carved a miniature replica of Sapan’s iconic rhino, and presented it to me. Still later, he carved a large, 18-inch statue of Ganesha––an absolutely professional work by an amateur.
Sapan Das is one of the most unforgettable characters I have met in my life. Time spent at his abode, was time well spent. There I learnt that there was life beyond work and golf.