A Letter from India No. 3

After an important supply trip to large a art shop in Delhi, driving past the giant rubbish mountain at Ghaziabad, we reach Modinagar. 

Modinagar Skyline

Modinagar Skyline

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!” 

Harrichand, Makesh, Mr Vikram (photo from 2016)

Harrichand, Makesh, Mr Vikram (photo from 2016)

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. 

The Modi Sugar Factory from the roof

The Modi Sugar Factory from the roof

A rather calm view over towards Modi Mandir (temple)

A rather calm view over towards Modi Mandir (temple)

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. 

Great lighting at this restaurant

Great lighting at this restaurant

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. 

School visit

School visit

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