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Kolkata (Calcutta)

[from early December:]

Goodbye to the miniature train community and into an old-fashioned taxi styled after the British round-bumper, crank-down-the-window town cars. Maybe it’s a literal left-over from occupation days, now worn from pushing through chaotic traffic. The truth is that I’m thrilled to be in it, crossing the illuminated Howrah Bridge and passing though Kolkata’s almost-NYC-feel streets. There are some moments when you are thrown out of yourself, an “I am in India!” feeling, where the scene slows and snaps into its own experiential photograph. Any stress becomes worth it.

I’ve heard that Kolkata is a city of the arts, and I am not disappointed. There are enormous museums, a little too hectic for my capabilities at this point; I never made it to the extensive Delhi ones, either. And parks with clusters of cricket games and picnickers. One of my fellow guest house resident’s is here to study the tabla, a difficult drum to learn; most players begin as children if their father is a musician. This lanky hippie man confirms my quiet hope that music events are happening every day in the city. The truth is that I won’t go to any of the concerts either. I love India, in some ways I feel more comfortable here than in the States, but my capacity for stimulation can be maxed out by a walk.

The small foreigner area concentrated on Sudder Street has several bookstores (along with the best naan I’ve ever had and a shop with tacky shiny plastic Christmas decorations): not just books-added-for-foreigners kind of places, proper ones that support the foreigner crowd but aren’t soulless.  Books in India are disproportionately priced; a new book costs as much as a hotel room. One spot has a mixture of new and old books wedged into wooden creaky shelves, some stacked in the corners.The squat man in white with a scruffy beard brightly points out the cheapest Hindi guide; he tells me that his father owned the shop before him, that it’s been there for sixty years. I break through the dramatic haggling over a trade for a popular travel story, Holy Cow, with an American “I like your bookstore and would like to buy it from you, and I think that 200 rupees is a decent price!” He proudly beams, and accepts.

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“Gandhiji?”

Oct 19. The Sevagram train station is a small, but clean, nicely decorated place, the first and last of its kind as far as I can tell. Having just arrived on an overnight train from Chennai, I slip into the first class waiting room to change and clean up.  Although Sleeper doesn’t sound “first class,” I think they mean anything that is not the free-for-all of general ticketing – being white and foreign means that no one will question my presence, anyway. I behave as if I am waiting for a train, although I really just want a safe space to open my laptop. Almost as soon as I am immobile, the young teenager who has That Look on her face comes over.

“Hello, Auntie!” Ten extra years earns me that. “Auntie” should be reserved for elderly ladies.

We chat; her cleverness and bright personality peeks through the typical demure cloak. She dashes away and returns with a notebook full of drawings: henna (mehindi) sketches of leaves, diamonds, peacocks weave and dance across pages and over pencil-line arms. Self-taught over the last year (now 13), I wonder if she could be called a henna prodigy. Naturally, I am soon meeting her parents who have been smiling gently across the room, sitting down next to her mother with drying henna-ed hands. The girl pulls out her little tube and turns me into canvas, confidently squeezing the brown liquid into flowers and vines snaking down my arm and pooling in my palm. I watch her deft movements, grateful to participate in her art; this will be my only mehindi in India. Her last act is to rub the ink onto every fingertip, up to the first crease – I am told that it increases the beauty of the pattern, and I nod, thrown by the strangeness of my hand.

When the drawing dried and was properly rubbed with oil, I set out for Gandhi’s ashram, the reason I am at this small town on the eastern side of Maharashtra. I know it is 3 km away, down the main road; the girl’s father tells me how much the rickshaw ought to cost, but I explain that I will walk. It’s Gandhi. You have to walk there.

So I take the shortcut to the main road, as he described. Every once in awhile, I confirm that I am going in the right direction by asking a local.

“Gandhi’s ashram?”

And they point farther down the road. At any questionable point, I reach out again.

“Gandhiji?” Arms swing out to point in the same direction. It is a parade of hand gestures creating a human sign post, a dotted line à la Family Circus.

“Bapu?”

In the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, there is a wall in the museum describing some of the letters to Gandhi. There was a collection of envelopes with bizarre addresses: “Gandhi, wherever he is, India,” or the best, a sketched portrait of him with no other information. And he received them.

One turn at the center of the village leads to a final curve revealing a complex of small buildings, thatched and mud-walled. Across the road is a guest house and a tiny museum. Inside the gates, Indian tourists wander around the labeled huts, reading about the ashram. Soon, a man in the classic white traditional clothing  that marks him as an “ashramite” spots me with my backpack, and in a few minutes I am set up in the guest house and expected at dinner.

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