I stopped by Westminster Abbey gift shop to see if my cards are still being sold a year on. Here they are. I was commissioned to design four cards over a year ago.
HAPPY CHRISTMAS MUMBAI!
I absolutely loved Mumbai, although everyone we met in India, without exception, called it Bombay.
We stayed in Colaba near the coast and fort in the Southern part of the city and from here spent a few days feasting and visiting all around. For larks, we met some friends on Christmas Eve and headed to Mary Mount where there were lots of churches, loads of decorations and hundreds of people... all wearing Father Christmas hats? We passed one church where the carol Holy Night was being sung and suddenly felt a little more in the spirit of Christmas.
Mumbai is known for its cultural scene and we went to lots of galleries, of which I was awed and impressed by the curation and content of the National Museum (Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya) which had wonderful sculpture, miniature paintings and textiles.
I also have to point out how free I felt in Mumbai. In Delhi I would do my best to be back by dark. In Mumbai I could step out at any time and feel pretty safe, although I admit we were staying in an area of hotels, restaurants and lots of tourists. Equally, women wear whatever they want here, showing as much leg as they might wish and generally it felt like a very liberal city in my short time exploring.
Our final stop in India was the city of Bhuj in the Kutch region of Gujarat. Described by some as 'the marketplace of India' it was where we spent the remainder of our dwindling savings. Here shops sold the most beautiful array of fabrics and embroideries from not just all over Northern India, but from Pakistan and Afghanistan as well. I have always had a mild obsession with beautiful textiles and I let go of any restraint and purchased some beauties, the most delightful of these is an antique Banjara Tribal headpiece that I am deeply in love with:
The city of Bhuj suffered an enormous earthquake in 2001 and little of the ancient city remains although you can still visit the palaces. The shadows of this natural disaster are still apparent despite the enormous rebuilding efforts but the city is still a joy to visit. I loved staying here in the City Guest House owned and run by host of sweet and helpful men and it was here we celebrated New Year on the roof leaping about and watching fireworks.
I persuaded my friends into a last adventure to the Hindu monastery of Than, a few hours North of Bhuj. We turned up unannounced and were shown great hospitality, given a crumbling but clean room with assorted blankets to sleep on in one of the upper levels. It was magical here, taking part in ceremonies, drawing and being fed in the Baba Maharaj's receiving room each evening, exploring the painted rooms and grounds and having a moment to be very peaceful and reflective in our final days in India.
One 28-hour train journey later and we arrived in Delhi and this brings an end to the India Letters!
I've since returned home with 3 full sketchbooks and a thick folder of drawings which hopefully leads to further, experimental adventures in my studio...
Better late than never... This is going back to December.
Fran, Sophie and I got the overnight bus to Hampi. This night was probably the worst night's travel of the entire trip as we were upper bunks at the rear of the bus. Every single bump threw us into the air like a sack of potatoes and you had to lie, spreadeagled, gripping onto any surface for the duration.
Everyone alway talks about how cool Hampi is. They describe the 'vibe', the way the village sits amongst the ruins so it almost feels like a living city, how you can rent motorbikes and zoom about, how it has the best rock climbing in the world over seemingly precariously balanced boulders. We liked all these things too, but for better or worse, the government had put a ban on businesses in the immediate area of the sites the day before we arrived and that included our hotel. We put our futures in the hands of a rickshaw driver who definitely took us to the worst hotel in town.
Having escaped the worst hotel in town, after a night, we popped over to the other side of the river, which is crossed via an overpriced ferry service monopoly, and stayed in the hippy, climbing district where the coffee was good but touristville was everywhere. Yet, you can forget all this when you are faced with incredible landscape, the paddy fields and the picturesque monuments that feel like they've been there for ever.
Some days we rented motorbikes and zoomed about the Northern bank of the river; past farms, villages, hillocks and stupendous boulders. Other days we took the boat across the river and drew all around the sites finding areas of solitude in which to draw.
After a week of wondering, luxuriating in getting to know one place quite well, we jumped on another night bus (marginally better) to Mumbai for Christmas.
After leaving Kerala we bus to Madurai (Tamil Nadu) where the huge and impressive Meenakshi Amman Temple complex stands looming above the skyline. We weren’t allowed to draw inside so you will have to take my word for it that it was very impressive. It rained so heavily we were trapped inside for many hours.
Mysore (Karnataka) is our next destination. It’s a lovely, airy city with wide roads and spacious housing. Our guesthouse is with a family in our favourite room thus far and we all spend our evenings drawing it, and strangely its bathroom as well. The father of our host is an advocate and professes a love of British literature, reciting us a Shakespearean sonnet.
We visit the ostentatious Mysore Palace with its kitch Victoriana designed by British architect Henry Irwin in 1897 and laugh at the double layers of barricades between visitors and any of the exhibits, so that you’re viewing tiny objects from about five metres away. Our favourite drawing haunt becomes the fruit and vegetable market with brightly painted and lit rooms filled with bananas. A cockroach lands on Sophie’s hand here making her scream extremely loudly and tempting us to move on to the ice cream parlour near our guest house.
The night bus to Goa is interesting. We are roughly awakened at 3am on the Goan boarder, told to grab our blankets and possessions and swap with the occupants of another night bus parked on the motorway. It turns out our bus has the wrong permit. Sleepy, we are picked up by my Aunt Alison in Mapusa the following morning and taken to Uncle Jon and their lovely house in Mandrem.
I would like to say we are really adventurous with our time in Goa but that would be a lie. I mostly swim in the pool, drew reflections and plants, go hippy-watching, catch up with Jon and Alison, eat loads and read books. It is wonderful...
Actually, there is an excursion to Old Goa where the old Portuguese cathedrals blew me away with their gold statues and eleborate altar pieces, so we aren’t completely sedentary.
Happy Christmas one and all!
Kerala’s air is richly scented with lush vegetation and the breeze through the car window smells almost spiced. As I comment on this to our taxi driver he turns to me with a shrug and declares nonchalantly, “Kerala; God’s own country”. The humidity hits us hard though, and as we move from airport to homestay, sweaty backpacks in tow, we realise that we are in a completely different country. This is confirmed when I hear the Malaya language, which sounds like a series of tongue-twisters with its fast, rattling pace and alliteration. From the airport we arrive late at night in Kochi.
Kochi holds an art biennale which fills the city with galleries. In this fallow year many are still open, housing a high standard of work. The city has an old Jewish quarter we explore and there are huge shady trees with ferns growing out of every branch. Soon, longing for solitude, we quickly make plans to head South into the famous backwaters. A train takes us to Alleppey, which has a long beach of fine white sand and delicious fishy food. We turn our backs on the sea and draw facing inland at the palms and houses with a group of men playing cards. The rooms are so damp at this guesthouse our clothes begin to rot in our fluorescent pink and turquoise room.
We hop on the public ferry to Kottyam (15p each for a 3 hour journey) via countless waterways with painted houses filtering through the trees and stay for several days at a homestay right on a river. The house is far from the town and we luxuriate in isolation, watching local villagers getting on with their daily lives. Across the river they are clearing scrub and I watch women canoeing to and fro.
From here we take another train to Munroe Island. The train slows past a tiny, empty platform and we jump off with it still moving. Houses are often brightly coloured wherever you go in India, but in Kerala the saturation dials have been turned up with bright primaries and gorgeous contrasting colours. It truly is a colourist’s dream.
This particular homestay has the most delicious food of the trip thus far. At first the family of three watch as we consume every mouthful, expectantly watching us masticate and this makes us quite self-conscious. But in no time at all we are the best of friends and the son, Uni, teaches us much about his country; the ruling communist parties, the freedom of the press, local traditions and local economy.
“I am going to be married when I am 27” Uni informs me with a smile.
“Ah, so you have a girlfriend?” I ask. This is two years away.
“Not yet”, he says, “but I asked the priest when I should be married, he looked at my horoscope and informed me it should be when I’m 27.”
One day Uni takes us to his friend’s wedding where we sit near the front of the community hall watching with delight and admiring ladies saris. We are invited to eat in the third round of lunch as there are over 500 guests, “A small wedding” Uni tells us.
Another day we take a canoe trip along the waterways and see wonderful kingfishers, mangroves and various edible plants which are pointed out to us by Uni.
We are very sad to leave Uni and his family (the coconut pancakes and the huge, delicious Thalis on banana leaves) but we climb on another train and several public busses to the Cardamon Hills. The tea plantations we pass through are beautiful; softly rolling hills with the rows spiralling across them. It’s much cooler up here which is a small relief. Our new hosts tour us around the local sites including ‘Asia’s largest curved dam”. Very impressive it was too.
On one of our days here I head off alone for a day of temples and find one that I particularly love as its both decadent and dilapidated. The priest feeds me rice pudding as I draw for hours.
I leave the artists-in-residence at Modinagar, my assisting role at an end, and head back to Sanskriti, Delhi for what I hope will be a wonderful weeks of drawing in all my favourite spots. Unfortunately this is the week of ‘The Great Smog’ where the pm levels in the air hit beyond index in the hazardous scale. For a few days it’s the most polluted place in the world. After furiously checking my air quality app, hearing about pile-ups on the motorway due to lack of visibility and seeing native Delhiites wearing masks for the first time ever, I hide in my room and read Indian novels for the next four days.
Francesca Mollett and Sophie Birch, my artist travelling companions for the next eight weeks, arrive in Delhi and we board a train to Benares. I have been looking forward to experiencing a overnight train as I’d romanticised the idea of falling asleep to gentle chugging in open carriages. The reality is snoring and sleeplessness, although the latter is partly due to excitement. I sit next to two very friendly ladies who share their dinner of chapattis and brinjal after I draw their portraits, and fall asleep to the train chai wallah calling “Sweet Goodnight” as he passes down the train.
At 8 the following morning we arrive at Varanasi.
My first impression of Varanasi goes against everything I have been told about its hectic atmosphere and strange energy. The streets are quiet, our £2 per night guesthouse in the old city mostly asleep and the ghats quite empty. We wonder up and down steps and along the Ganga in the high heat, finding spots of shade to draw the colourful and often frilly array of washing drying on every surface.
The streets around the old city are filled with bottles to collect Ganga water, prayer cloths, Rudraksha beads, brassware and oil lamps. We wonder around testing the street food, drawing the brightly lit interiors of shops and trying not to buy anything. This proves difficult.
It is only as evening approaches and dusk falls that we realise how busy and mad it becomes as crowds build, musicians play and pujas commence. One evening we are sitting in Dashashwamedh Ghat and drawing the red and gold trimmed chunni cloths hanging for sale. Within moments we are surrounded by hundreds of pilgrims coming for the evening Aarti. The singing is rhythmic and beautiful and the young priests performing the rituals mesmerising.
I really like our Guesthouse, ‘Family’, which has a host of men (we are never sure how many) running the place in a very relaxed manner. They seem to all sleep on the floor next to our room after a nightly party.
”What are you celebrating tonight?” I ask.
“The anniversary of the first Prime Minister Nehru” one cries swigging whisky happily, before another calls, “Sweet dreams” clarifying, “of Varanasi, not of me”.
One morning we wonder down towards Assi Ghat at the lower end of the main strip. There we sit in the shade of a huge tree and draw the shrines. I’ve always had a huge attraction to the shrines of India; their chaotic disorder and bright colours which led me to make my own, personal versions on my return last year. I still feel a fascination for them, and sit under a carved portico to draw offerings of rice and leaves. Here we are befriended by a group of art students from Varanassi University and they invite us to their friend’s print exhibition in a repurposed temple area. They look through our sketchbooks and we discuss each other’s works with mutual interest.
An aspect I really love about Varanasi is how Western tourism has not altered or ruined the living purpose of the city in any obvious way. It is possible to avoid the hareem pants and shiny restaurants and visit side by side with the temple goers, pilgrims and holy men. Whilst drawing and perusing, we are bothered very little and mainly attract children selling flowers and chai who sit and watch us in friendly silence. Fran, Sophie and I build a happy and companionable rhythm of drawing, eating and walking and leave the city with our sketchbooks thicker and pencils shorter.
Next time > Kerala!
After an important supply trip to large a art shop in Delhi, driving past the giant rubbish mountain at Ghaziabad, we reach Modinagar.
Modinagar is a city grown around a sprawl of factories on a motorway heading to Meerut. The air smells of mulched sugarcane and the sky is a continuous pale yellow with a burning tangerine sun you can look at directly. I remember my arrival last year, where our residency for the three months was described as the ‘ancestral home’ of the Modi’s, a term that delivers certain connotations. We turned up to a massive 1950s complex in various states of serious decay. This year I am prepared and watch the reaction of my four friends with amusement as they take in the gated complex and its many hoards of clambering macaques. I lead them through one of the many apartments, the old flat of our sponsors, where they see black mirrored bathrooms, giant beds, sunken baths, ostentatious but mismatched furniture and are followed by the pervasive smell of mothballs. I explain what doesn’t drain, what doesn’t pour, which lights work during the daily power cuts and they are genuinely excited by the strangeness of this building. It’s a very peculiar place indeed.
Upon our arrival I see the smiling face of Harrichand waiting for us at the entrance and run to give him a big hug. Harrichand is one of three men who look after our every need whilst in residence at the Bhavan. Mr Vikram buys the food from the market and overseas the cooking, Makesh is the cook and Harrichand stays at the house to guard us, serve us and ensure our every comfort. They fuss and cluck round us in the most heartwarming and wonderful way with Harrichand’s continuous mantra,
“Guest is God… Work is Worship… Love is Life!”
I haven’t said much to others about the IIFA welcome ceremony which is to be held at the college where the four will be teaching for the next eight weeks. As we drive up to the old mill buildings, we see the whole art school congregated outside awaiting us with a big poster declaring us Professors, probably the only time in my life when I shall be termed as such. We jump out of the van and are presented with smiling faces, a Tilak between our eyes, a garland around our necks and are led into the auditorium where we are further presented with flowers and a speech from Mr Roy extolling our many virtues and his hopes for the teaching we shall do. There is a tour around the school and I recognise many of the teachers and students from last year. They are very welcoming and we begin to get used to their "good morning ma'am"s and "hello sir"s. When we return to the house I insist on a photo of this years batch in the huge black sunken bath, it’s become quite the tradition.
The planning for the IIFA teaching timetable gets underway. Last year, over the course of three months, we ended up teaching the entire art school, be it Foundation, Painting, Applied Arts (graphics), Fashion or Textiles. This year we take our first class, a morning with the Foundation Year, to the Park and all eighty students sit in two rotating rows drawing each other's portraits. As there's an odd number I sit opposite a student who takes a huge gulp, "Oh no... I'm drawing ma'am!" he cries alarmed, eyes wide. They are cheerful and concentrated and there's a lot of laughter as the morning progresses. Some students have very good English but the majority have little and this adds another layer of complexity to our teaching. Fortunately, gesture, demonstration and little translation work wonders.
Over my ten days in Modinagar we do a few classes with the painters and foundation year and I'm struck again and again by the curriculum at this art school, a structure that often feels like something out of the dark ages. Each class has weekly projects where they have very specific criteria in which they must make work. The 'best work' from previous years is stuck to the corridor walls for this year's group to emanate or copy. Usually, the still-life using crosshatch, the cubist rendering, the perspective view all come out looking exactly the same. I believe the Royal Drawing School tutors' greatest battle is to try and get individuality from the students, as well as persuade them that photo-realism is not the only effective form of painting, not least because it's a personal hatred, but because there are so many other realms of expression open to them. I have a long talk with a group of third-year painters where they insist that photo realism is the only form of painting that sells in India,
"That simply isn't true," I insist, "have you been to the Modern Art Gallery, to the art fairs, to the contemporary galleries in Delhi?" They have not, of course, and IIFA certainly doesn't take them.
The battle is an interesting one. In a life drawing session we pick out specific works at the finishing critique. We explain that the proportions of a particular drawing are, perhaps, totally incorrect, but there is personality, or emotion, or beautiful mark-making that makes the drawing interesting and worthy in other ways. I'm never sure we are believed, not completely.
click images above to scroll
At first, making work in Modinagar is very difficult. The moment you sit down in any public place you are immediately swamped with (mostly) well-wishers and observers who inevitably offer to buy you a chai and sit for a portrait. In India, there is no understanding of art as work, rather, you are a public spectacle. If I am really trying to get in the zone I place a large set of headphones over my ears, am determinedly deaf and blind to any approaches and cry "challo! challo!" (go away!) when necessity dictates. This has varying success. There are quiet places that I found last year, little wastelands on the edges of the city, the rooftop from our lodgings and occasional quiet squares with temples or shrines. Generally, however, it is hubbub and mayhem and the incessant chorus of different honks from the main road.
Last year, a great friendship was forged between us (Tyga, Bel, Matty and me) and Deepak Gera. Deepak became our enormously generous, joyous, emotional, demanding and jealous friend and he has the most expressive face and gestures of anyone I have ever met. On my first day back in Modinagar I make sure to visit him in his travel agency as well as say hello to his wife Mallika, and his sons Krishna and Karthik. I'm presented with flowers and promises of parties with demands to "Come my office" every day.
When I tell him of Matthew's birthday in a few days his eyes sparkle with joy and he rents out the basement of a restaurant where we eat under neon strobe lighting with all his friends before getting up and dancing madly. Matthew's sees in his 27th year in remarkable style.
We are semi-coerced into another strange adventure which is to tour Deepak's tangential friend's school to tell them how it can be improved, or "say any bad things about school" as Deepak explains. A very handsome vehicle arrives to take us to even more bouquets and garlands. We visit each and every classroom and try and exchange a few sentences with some of the children there. None of us are really sure of what 'bad things' we can possibly say of any use but we have a nice chat and are force-fed a huge number of disparate foods.
It is not long at all until my time at Modinagar and as acting guide for the residency artists is at an end. I leave Modinagar once more, back to Sanskriti calm and on to pastures new (Varanasi & The South).
For a visual diary of my trip you can follow my Instagram Account
There was a strange symmetry to our departure and return to Delhi; both journeys were long, uncomfortable and emotional roller coasters.
We book two taxis to take us and our belongings to the bus depot for our trip to Manali, ‘gateway of the Himalayas’. I am in a taxi with Doug and the traffic is thick and sluggish. After an hour we look at other and say in unison, “We’re going to miss it!” I call Chris in the other car and we agree to get to the nearest tube station and try to run for it. We all have backpacks, folders and rucksacks and it is rush hour. The trains are full and only Doug and Chris manage to squeeze onto one carriage whilst we have to wait for the next train,
“Where we getting off?” Doug yells in the crush.
“Kashmire Gate!” I shout as the doors close.
Elvira, Matt and I squash onto the next train that is so packed a woman floats on her back over us as she is pushed horizontal. Arriving at the other end we streak through the metro to the bus station following pointed fingers as we call out requests for directions, finally getting to a conductor in the depot. I push my ticket at him,
“Which is this bus?” I ask. Chris and Doug are nowhere to be seen.
“Gone” he say, waving his hand dismissively and turns to the next customer. We sink on our bags, soaked with sweat our hearts sinking.
In India, there is something quite amazing about the way people treat total strangers. Looking lost, exhausted and panting, so many people come up to us and try to help. Finally, one man gestures for us to follow him. There on the other side of the station is Chris, who has persuaded the bus to pull to one side to wait for ten minutes. Thanking the kind man, the bus conductor, Chris and everyone around, all five of us clamber aboard euphoric and mildly hysterical, settling into our fourteen-hour overnight journey.
The driving in India is very different to home. Overtaking on blind corners at full speed is the norm in the Himalayas. Suffice to say, that at Elvira was not carsick in the end, and we arrived in Manali for eleven the next morning.
The first thing that hits me in Manali is the cool, fresh air of the Himalayas and my lungs rejoice. Manali is densely filled with guesthouses, restaurants and Indian tourists. We drop our bags at a small hotel where the manager reminds us of faulty towers. Every question you ask sends him into a flurry of worry and the word ‘internet’ makes him put a hand to his forehead in fear, but we are comfortable, have views over the town and tell him we are very happy.
We walk over to Old Manali, which retains older looking houses. Village life appears to continue much as normal behind the shopping street but its hippy, backpacker centre is proclaimed by a sign outside a barber saying “Dreadlocks done here” and we sit in a café playing rave music. Everywhere we are offered weed.
Having booked a taxi to take us up to the Rohtang Pass for the next day we don thermals, scarves and overcoats alongside our art materials. Halfway up there’s a stop for some breakfast and I examine a bright red and yellow temple with prayer flags floating in the wind. As I sit and have a drink a number of youths pile out of a small vehicle and immediately befriend us, “Mat-Tew” they cry as they ask for selfies and I explain “My name is Lottie, not rotti” (like a chapatti), a common and amusing confusion.
At the top of the pass a flurry of snow is falling and the sky is brilliant with dark scudding clouds. Mountains appear and disappear quite suddenly. Each of us jumps out the vehicle and spends the next several hours chilling ourselves as we paint and draw the landscape around us. I make a drawing with my frozen fingers that feels totally unlike myself, but I am pleased with the effort and run back to the car to warm up. We make some other stops on the way down and everyone is elated by the drama and our attempts to capture it.
The following day I join Matthew and Chris for a walk along the river where huge boulders have been deposited and smoothed over many millennia. Little shanty villages have sprung up on the edges of the road and I sit, in what I later realise is a refuse dump, to draw the corrugated roofs and women cleaning out their single roomed dwellings. It’s quiet and aside from the occasional pack of dogs wondering through, very peaceful.
In the mean time Elvira, who headed to Old Manali, has befriended Dean, a multi-lingual friend-collector from Chennai who works for the railway and invites us all for dinner. We sit in his hotel room as he proudly boast his ability to speak all European languages in which he can say “Hello, how are you, thank you, I love you, cheers!”
“Ask me any European language!” he cries, “Make it difficult!”
“Bosnian” I say quickly and he frowns discontentedly. He manages Serbian.
The following day we take several public busses towards our homestay near Banjar to a village called Gushaini. One bus is so delightfully orange inside and plays loud music. I love public busses in India and in present company I understand myself to be quite alone in this. I enjoy their energy; the rocking, swerving motions, the crush, the music and the way people jump on and off at a run, and as I stare out the open window I’m very happy. The destination is the Tirthan Valley and its relative solitude is booked for four nights. Naresh, our host, awaits our arrival and loads our belongings into a small cage attached to a rope across the river. Elvira and I clamber in and fly across. There’s no bridge and in the mornings we watch children pulling themselves over on their way to school.
The valley is beautiful and calm, but with the noticeable success of tourism slightly marring the edges of the road with concrete skeletons of buildings and large signs advertising guesthouses. Our little homestay sits in front of a much older balconied building that seems to be in the Kullu style. People sit on the wooden balconies in the middle of the day resting and chatting in the shade. Little paths run up and down all over the village and women carrying huge bushels of grass and cuttings up and down alongside cows, dogs and children. I immediately discover a large shrine above many of the houses that belongs to a tiny little old man with no teeth called Udayram. Whilst drawing the lovely turquoise (my favourite colour) shrine he come and sits by me watching and continually chatting to me despite protests of “Hindi nahi”. Finally, he points over his shoulder, grabs my breast with one hand, and makes rocking baby motions. The action was so casual and devoid of lechery I sit stunned for moment before finishing my drawing and heading back down the mountain, Udayram still chatting away to me.
Our host has two sweet and very awkward younger brothers who smile a lot and cook all our meals several hours after we ask for them. On Diwali we meet more of his family and they invite us into their house where we eat sweets and grin at each other as neither side can speak more than a few sentences of English or Hindi. Earlier that day we had walked to the local village to buy fireworks and other necessities and add our contributions to their supply of “crackers” that litters the roof of our house. The children scream with absolute delight at the sparklers and fountains and bombs go off all over the place. Even the four-year-old is lighting them and jumping around with joy. After a bomb goes off in Matt’s hand, Doug gets a spark down the back of his shirt, a firework cuts Elvira’s leg and Chris gets tinnitus, the cache is eventually emptied and we retire for the night our retinas ablaze and our ears ringing.
Our four nights are over all too quickly and soon we rise at 4am, crossing the river cage in the dark, to catch the bus to Shimla at 5 o’clock. It’s a long and rather brutal journey but we arrive in Shimla in the early afternoon. My grandfather was born here and though I never knew him I’ve always been interested to visit.
Shimla is such a peculiar place. The top of the town has a road called the Ridge, which reminds one of a Victorian seaside promenade with pagodas, iron lampposts and the weirdest array of semi-English architecture. It's also very Indian and I love the lower bazaars that twist around the hills in a motley, crumbling way and wish we had more time here to draw. We all settle into the India Coffee House, an establishment that feels like it’s been there forever, and order masses of food and drink. Doug goes a little insane over a cheese sandwich.
Alas, our time in Shimla is short and aside from a short wonder around the town in the morning we head to the train station for the Shimla-Kalka railway, the famous toy train built in 1898 to get the British to their summer capital. We walk to the station along the tracks and buy lots of snacks for our journey. The seats seem to be made for small children, but the views are magnificent and I can’t take my eyes off the horizon.
Sadly, our re-entry into Delhi was not triumphant. Our connection at Kalka becomes a little disastrous as we get onto the wrong Delhi train and the surly and extremely unhelpful conductor throws us off at Chandigarh. However, this is not before a man, overhearing our plight, rings a friend in the city to order us a taxi back to Delhi. He continually rings us to check we are okay and are in the right taxi. We finally return to calm Sanskriti at 1am, relieved. All I can say is that people have gone out of their way to help us at every turn in India and their generosity and kindness has always amazed me.
Tomorrow, Modinagar and teaching with IIFA.
For a visual diary of my trip you can follow my Instagram Account
I have returned to India and to that strange oasis of calm and serenity that is Sanskriti Kendra in South Delhi. This is the place where no fallen leaf is left to rest for more than a hour and signs requesting visitors to “Walk Quietly” and “Speak Softly” are placed at intervals along swept earth, granite paths, past ancient Rajasthani fretwork and huge ceramic cows. I like it here, very much, but somehow it feels rather other, dreamlike and not at all Delhi.
The flight begins quite memorably due to two men whose state I like to think was due to their fear of flying rather than habit. They are so drunk that they and their luggage have to be escorted from the plane before take-off. After this amusement there is nothing more to report until Mr Shyan’s face, lit with a momentary flicker of a grin, appears at the barrier to the airport. Mr Shyan is an important, grizzly presence to the residency because he is our official driver. Uncommunicative but trustworthy, Mr Shyan plays loud Bollywood tunes between the airport, Sanskriti, Modinagar and IIFA in his tiny little car, emitting grunts and curses at those that impede our travel.
At Sanskriti I am installed into one of the artist houses, comprising of a studio and a mezzanine bedroom and bathroom. The outlook is a shared walled garden with bright pink flowering vines and the continuous sound of songbirds. It’s the same one we were given last year and I feel quite at home. I settle in after Ravinder, whom I associate with scrupulous cleanliness and unstinting bureaucracy, asks me to fill in four sheets all with very similar lists of information that he passed me with carefully manicured fingers.
Three days later, Mr Shyan returns to take me to the airport and an exhausted Doug, Elvira, Chris and Matt appear without mishap, to be loaded into two tiny cars with a collection of very large suitcases. It wasn’t long outside the concourse before a 500 rupee fine (bribe) had to be given to the police for “large suitcases on the roof” and everyone felt very much like they had arrived.
It turns out that Doug has a full medic kit packed for us, which includes a tourniquet (“for the Himalayas” he informs me practically). On our arrival at Sanskriti, Chris immediately sets out twitching with his binoculars and returns with cries of “Hoopoe! Monkeys!”, Matt unpacks his skateboard, and Elvira, who had packed everything sits with me looking out with wonder at the grounds and sips some tea I brought from home.
They are all exhausted and dead on their feet so I scrap my plan for a evening meal in the ‘Shoreditch of Delhi’, Haus Khaz, and I suggest a walk to our local village, Ghittorni. I say village, but really it’s swallowed up farmland turned into an array of furniture shops along the motorway side. Behind it little streets are filled with stalls, kiosks and temples with a dense Sunday crowd milling up and down. The pollution is so thick you can taste it, and I watch Elvira, Chris and Matt’s eyes grow large as they jump out the way of motorcycles and around cows. Doug had stayed at home to rest and it was possible they were wishing they had too.
I decide to throw them into the thick of Old Delhi for their first full day. Old Delhi is a sensory explosion of sight, smell and the sound of continuous honking. I make our first stop out of the metro a personal pilgrimage to Haldiram’s, a chain of snacks and sweets. Chris’ eyes soon roll closed over tasting “the best samosa I’ve ever eaten” and he quickly dashes off for a second helping.
From Chandni Chowk we wonder back streets, front streets and side streets of wedding invitations, garlands, decorations, saris, calendars, medical textbooks…… all arranged by area. I recognise various stoops and steps that I’d sat on the previous year to make my drawings, drinking chai and watching monkeys hanging from electric wires. Elvira fills her rucksack after being introduced to the little stationers kiosks, where men on long ladders throw down item after item for her perusal. We all avail ourselves of new Indian sketchbooks with patterned covers. Unfortunately Doug couldn’t discover where gas canisters were being sold so he could make himself real coffee in the morning on a gas ring he has packed. Outside another shop, which Matt and I were perusing, another customer turns to us and asks, “What language are you speaking?”
“English!” replies Matt with a friendly smile.
“Ah really?”, he looks surprised, and then explains to us “we speak British English from colonial times, our accent is from them”. We exchange confused glances.
“Well, we are British” I say laughing and he looks disbelieving.
Religious buildings abound in Delhi, and I plan for our first stop to be to Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib, a Sikh temple. We cover our heads and off our shoes and draw our way around the compound. The temple kitchens are extraordinary as rows of volunteers chop potatoes, roll out chapattis, stir dahl and clean plates for anyone who would like to sit for a meal. Our drawings are filled with giant saucepans and busy industry.
Tuesday arrives hot and humid. I take the artists to New Delhi’s National Museum, which is packed full of Indian sculpture, school children and Indian miniatures. The Mughal paintings are in a low-lit dingy room but they still sparkle and are a joy to draw and examine. My particular favourite show Krishna up a tree stealing the clothes of Gopis washing in the river, hiding their modesty with lillies. After half a day spent drawing there, we took an auto rickshaw to the Lodhi Gardens,
Everyone fell in love with the Lodhi gardens, their tranquility and beauty, the lovers hiding in corners murmuring to each other, a dead tree full of Red Kites, and the C15 tombs of Mughal dynasties past. On Sundays it becomes busy as families congregate for picnics and games and I remember drawing a Sufi poetry reading club last year. Next door to the gardens there is a really wonderful restaurant where we enjoyed a tranquil, cold drink, ending the day perfectly.
The following day we revisit Chandni Chowk to see the beautiful mosque Jama Masjid. I sit outside with the shoes and watch Indians watching tourists with bemusement. Chris comes back pointing excitedly to the sky where red kites are wheeling and diving as a man throws pieces of meat up into the air. He also gains himself, unasked, a bodyguard who pokes gawkers with a stick if they got too close to his drawing.
The spice market took everyone’s breath away, literally, with sneezing and coughing. “Perhaps it’s something you get used to”, ponders Matt, but this was quickly answered as all the vendors hack, spit and cough continuously. My favourite chai stand is on the first floor of the market, although you can climb up to the roof that runs around the entire building and look down on spices drying and vendors rushing about with sacks of chillies on their heads. All of us make prolonged work, getting paints out and striking a position on one of the levels.
I end the evening by heading to Haus Khaz Village for dinner, and it was here that disaster struck poor Chris. He had left his folder with his self-made tripod attachment and the day’s drawings on the rickshaw. He is clearly crushed but we try and mend the wound with an excellent meal at one of the restaurants.
Every Thursday, music (Qawwali) is played after sunset prayers in Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, a mausoleum to the sufi saint and poet Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya. I take Matt and Elvira there to meet another RDS alumni, Fran and her friend Sophie, who I shall be joining up on their travels later. There is a completely different feel to this district. The colours of dress are brighter, all the men wear Kufis on their heads and meat hangs from every other doorway. You follow the swell of bodies and eventually get sucked into a winding corridor that leads to an archway into the shrine. Enroute vendors sell prayer flags, offerings and shoe storage. Fran and Sophie had only just arrived that morning and it must have been quite an experience to be thrown into the thick of Nizamuddin with the screams and yells of people sending themselves berserk behind latticed screens, the drumbeats of the devotional music throbbing in the background and the queues of men waiting to make their offering in the shrine. People around us are very friendly and offer us food as we sit and listen to the music. Matt gets whacked in the face by a lady who faints into Sophie’s lap after driving herself into a frenzy.
Our last day in Delhi before we go North. In the morning I take Doug, Elvira and Matt to Qutub Minar, a UNESCO world heritage complex of carved covered walkways and gates surrounding a beautiful minaret that tapers as it rises 73 metres. Once inside the site we all try to draw but are the focus of fascination for the hundreds of school children who run around yelling. The little girls walk everywhere in pairs with red ribbons and sashes over their blue and white uniforms. Doug did some portraits of schoolboys and all of us appear in selfie after selfie. We find the park around the paid part of the complex to be less pristine, quieter, wilder and more intriguing with its ruins and trees. Newly married couples go there with flocks of photographers to have their wedding photos taken and workers repairing the paths have set up a little shanty village in one section where children play in the cement mix.
Fran and Sophie came to meet us again and we have a last lunch together for a month. I'm so excited to travel to places new with them but there's a lot to look forward to in the meantime.
For visual updates of my travels please see my Instagram Account
Last year, I was one of four artists selected for the three-month IIFA Artist Residency, through the Royal Drawing School, to teach and make work in Delhi and Modinagar, India.
This coming October I am accompanying the next four artists selected and will be going back to India to introduce them to Delhi and teaching in the IIFA Art School.
After assisting them for one month I shall be drawing my way around India with two artist friends.
It was a great turn out for the In Dreams exhibition private view at the Menier Gallery. I had some of my most recent pieces on show amidst the work of 17 other artists.
Here are some pictures of the private view:
Thank you to all those who visited the exhibition.
I have a few works in this exhibition opening next week.
This work now resides in Westminster Abbey's Permanent Collections:
On Tuesday, 20th June the exhibition Turmeric: Four British Artists in India opened in an Indian-summer blast of heat and colour. The artwork spread over two floors of the gallery Daniel Raphael on Church Street, Marylebone.
The exhibition displayed work made by Tyga Helme, Christabel Forbes and myself, with an accompanying pamphlet my Matthew Cunningham.
Here are some pictures from the private view:
Thank you to all those who came to the show, either on the private view or during the run.
My class and I ended our 10 weeks at the National Gallery by drawing from Chris Ofili's tapestry commissioned by the Clothworker's Guild. Brilliant drawings all round.
I have just returned from a month's artist residency on the Dumfries House Estate in Ayrshire. I've left behind my dream studio and daily country walks. An incredibly peaceful and productive place.
I was included in this final exhibition of BAES (the Benevolent Association of Excellent Solutions), April 2017, South-East London.
there are systems within systems overlapping with and connected to other systems composed of individuals. the intersection of these systems within a physical space created its own temporary sub system. as the physical space is removed the sub system loses none of its components. on the 6th april we will have a final merging of system before diffusing into our larger collective.
it has been wonderful.
Here are some photos of the private view of my solo exhibition Sacred Space; Drawings and Paintings of Westminster Abbey. The exhibitions was held at St Margaret’s Westminster.
The exhibition ran 9-16 February 2017.
All the photos are by brilliant photographer Angus Knights.
January 2017 - Sanskriti Kendra, Delhi
The four of us, Christabel Forbes, Tyga Helme, Mathew Cunningham and myself, put together a select show of work made whilst in India.