A Letter from india No. 1

Sanskriti Kendra, South Delhi

Sanskriti Kendra, South Delhi

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.

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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.

Sketchbook: Lodi Gardens

Sketchbook: Lodi Gardens

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.

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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.

The spice market from the roof

The spice market from the roof

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.   

School girls at Qitab Minar

School girls at Qitab Minar

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. 

Me, Doug, Matt, Fran, Elvira & Sophie

Me, Doug, Matt, Fran, Elvira & Sophie

 

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