Thursday, 12 December 2019


I knew I was in India when I saw a young girl of about eight (probably 15) at a chaotic major intersection performing circus like gymnastics - pulling herself along the ground through a tiny loop of rope while her young brother collected rupees from the waiting cars, when a white robed Jain man carefully carries three dead rats in a lime green kitchen pan to place them somewhere respectful. Everything is sacred to the Jains including mosquitoes.
I land in a refined, restored heritage villa in Delhi owned by Ashok and Ein Lall, both who studied architecture at Cambridge University, the house was bought by Ashok's grandfather after it was auctioned off to the locals after the British left India. Giant mango and Pipal trees hang from every autocratic word spoken from those British times of decadence. Three streets away from this oasis the Delhi machine is in action, rusty as hell in parts and smooth as oil in others. Desperate as hell in parts, yet woven of the finest silk in others, and exhausting - if one does not recognise that the battering is taking effect. I must learn to retire from the streets and recharge at times.
I can't help but tred onto and into structures of crumbling beauty which led to enjoying a fine cup of tea in a victorian floral teacup with Biresh Kishore - a bachelor living with his spinster sister in a nearly empty mansion once owned by the british and inherited from his high court judge father. Biresh's aristocratic father could never find suitors good enough for them to marry so here they are sharing this space with neglected carved teak furniture, and mattress stuffing all over the floor.
After tea, and after some time, it is the Ahmedabad Express train (haha) that I board to reach Ahmedabad in 17 hours time. With the next train booking I shall not inadvertently choose upper cattle class...cramped up high in a three tier bunk bed made it pretty tricky to climb the ladder down to the asphyxiating squat hole in the floor. On the opposite bunk an exquisite young muslim women lay, or rather hid behind her black burka - looking stunned and maudlin she is the newly married third harem wife of the elderly man on the lower bunk.
It's good to back with a mission once again - this time travelling to Gujurat - the Manchester of the East, where I shall commission the wood block carvers of Pethapur to carve my illustrations and cartoons onto recycled teak wood, The wood used comes from the demolished 200/300 year old havelis of Ahmedabad - still flecked with the pale green and blue paint used to decorate these intricately carved houses.
"tell me what you think" Gurmeet asks (how do you make ideas in your head?) - it's a tough question and one that is always difficult to verbally answer. I met Gurmeet online - through my research into wood block carvers, he's a graduate of the Kerala State Institute of Design, an enthusiastic educator and entrepreneur and has written a book on the woodblock carvers of Pethapur - he is the perfect creative companion and guide.
We spent the day in Pethapur - a dusty noisy small town on the outskirts Ahmedabad, if you can have an 'outskirts' in India. Concrete construction in all directions, dense, overwhelming chaos, a churning machine of humanity is India. I've now commissioned three sets of carvers to carve my blocks and must now discipline myself to sit and draw more images to make the final story work. The street beckons you see.
On the way to find hand spun, hand loomed cotton and silk on which to print the blocks I am held up and asked on five occasions 'where is your husband? what is his name? Peter, Richard, John, David and Stuart were my husbands - all very 50's names that popped up. Indians feel very sad for you if you don't have a husband (well the men do!)
On my way to visit the Mata ni Pachedi traditional painters and cloth printers my auto rickshaw flew by a huge brick building of curious shape - aha I thought, this Le Corbusiers City Gallery building, and then right next door was Doshi's huge cultural centre building - both I recognised from photos that my architecture student children have shown me. 'I'll stop by there on the way back I thought.
I'm shown rusted iron and jaggery (sugar) left to age in a ceramic pot for weeks to create a dense black printing ink which I will need to print the block images then the printed cloth is boiled with tamarisk to fix the colour.
I plan to cart all my blocks to the desert region of Dhamadkar, Kutch - where within a small muslim town of 25,000 inhabitants I shall employ natural dye printers. I'm looking forward to being in a small village with goats, sparkly stars and sweet buffalo milk.

Biresh Kishore - an echo of a gentile past.

View from my haveli, Ahmedabad right now.
Me in my pretty respectable dress (good for doing business) at Prakash and Bharat's wood block carving studio.
Talking serious rupee negotiations with Prakash.
Niral showing me how they make the black ink for printing cloth. Niral is crucial here, with her great english she will help me with relaying my unusual composition requests to her block printing family.
Old iron and jaggery ink making in process
Nirals father boiling printed cloth with added Tamarisk seeds to fix the colour.
Prakash at work on the beginning of a wood block - to be sent to Kutch for printing
Azam mouzzam roza vasna - just one of many monuments/tombs one stumbles upon while wandering this city.
This man is the guardian of the tomb - his great great grandfather is deep inside
Le Corbusiers City Gallery - full of dusty wonderful Gujurati artifacts, and the actual scale models
made of Corbusiers buildings.
Doshi's monumental cultural centre right next door.

Saturday, 30 November 2019


Hey all of you out there who might have the time to accompany me on my next journey - I'm off to a small town outside Ahmedabad, Gujurat, India to find and collaborate with the disappearing wood block carvers of Pethapur. So once again I will be squatting on dusty wood shavings and drinking chai with craftsmen whose descendants have been woodblock carvers for centuries. The imagery concept is different this time - it is more global and I'm not going to be responding to India only issues. So I'm off next Tuesday, and reasonably well prepared with a few drawings for the carvers. I'll be posting stories and pix and will attempt to make some very novice i-movies. Until India xxx 

At work preparing for The Wood Block Carvers of Pethapur.

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Thanks to all of you who followed my adventures in Varanasi last year. The embroideries and wood blocking you have seen in my blog are now to be exhibited at the James Wallace Pah Homestead, see the details below. You are all invited to the opening on Monday, September 17th. It would be great to see you there.

Anna Crichton
‘Ragpicker at 4 am’
Abstract Embroidery and Woodblock Carving in Varanasi, India
Exhibition opening: Monday 17 September, 6pm
Exhibition runs 18 September – 11 November 2018

Award winning illustrator, cartoonist and ceramicist Anna Crichton, travelled to Varanasi, India, on a three-month artist residency in 2017 to explore the sculptural potential of bead and thread embroidery and woodblock carving, as media for social commentary.

Once in India, the struggles and hardships of the rural poor – child marriage, female infanticide, forced sterilisation, the caste and dowry system - all issues that particularly impact women, were realities that commanded Anna’s attention.

Developing ideas for abstract imagery that would reflect the tough lives of the less visible was a creative challenge for Anna and demanded a very different thinking process than required for her satirical illustration and cartoons.The dusty chaotic streets of Varanasi are lined with alcoves selling myriad colours of glass beads, miles of cotton and silk thread, metres of hand loomed fabric trucked in from the rural village looms - all new and inspiring media.

After sourcing the right beads, threads and cloth, and working closely with local craftspeople through curious and patient translators, together with Google Translate, Anna provided the embroiderers with detailed designs and thread direction overlays. Carefully following Anna’s designs, the embroideries were hand-stitched onto hand-loomed cotton and silk cloth, and then sewn onto street-worn canvas backings - formerly pedal rickshaw canopies that Anna bought from their bewildered and amused drivers.

Inspired by Varanasi’s wood block fabric printing tradition, Anna was introduced to a fifth-generation carver. From his stockpile of teak, recycled from flat-bed trucks, he precisely worked to Anna’s designs to create objects of beauty and functionality. Each of the wood blocks she commissioned tell their own tough story, and have been hand-rubbed by Anna onto fine village-woven silk.

Anna is the five-time winner of the Canon/Qantas Media Editorial artist award. Her work has been published in the New York TimesWall Street JournalTimeThe Australian, New Zealand Herald, Metro Magazine, Cuisine and in other well-known New Zealand publications. She is a two-time finalist in the Portage Ceramic Awards and her work is collected by The Turnbull Library Cartoon Archives.

Anna has lived in Titirangi, Auckland for 21 years. In her twenties, Anna collaborated on The Spirited Earth, a book documenting dance, myth and ritual in Asia, South East Asia and the Pacific.  After exploring ceramics and the abstraction of Outsider Art, Anna was inspired to finding new ways of making commentary through her art. 

She plans to return to the Rann of Kutch, India in 2019 to further her passion for making social commentary through craft.

Anna wished to acknowledge and thank The James Wallace Foundation and The Asia New Zealand Foundation for their generous support in helping to fund her residency in Varanasi.

Work will be for sale – contact me if interested.

Sunday, 10 December 2017


Ramesh is embroidering my final designs, and I'm out searching for yet more rikshaw canvas canopies to back them with - enhancing my reputation as the frantic canvas nabber! While scrutinising the 'Caste' embroidery I was asked if I would like to have lunch, "yes please". Lots of happy excitement as I was ushered into the dining room. 

A sumptuous feast of curried chicken, rice and potato paratha was placed on the bed (on a plate) - just one lone placement for I am to eat first as the 'Guest is God' traditional Indian expression applies. I chatted with Bintu, Ramesh's son while eating and was told not to talk while eating by his wife who had prepared the lunch - for I am to focus on, and savour the food. A nice relief, I all too often speak too much about nothing much at all.

It was the first time I've eaten meat since I've been in India, and if I have the self discipline would happily eat meatless when back in NZ.Tomorrow I head might take a bit of adjusting - back to the needs of maintaining a household and a very different reality. It will be wonderful to see Eva and Reuben (and Hunter the dog) after three and a half months away.

In the relative quiet of this early morning I realise I have not heard the sound of rain, or the sloshing of a mellow Manukau wave since I arrived here in Varanasi early October. The horns, the hawkers, the rickshaw wallah’s ‘Ma’am where you go?” and the temple chanting every morning delivered through street loudspeakers, political rallies, street wedding ceremonies, are sounds that will resonate for ever. 

The electric hot water tank heating up is my rain sound, it’s easy then to imagine rain sissing on my deck at home in Titirangi. Very lovely. The gardener tossing buckets of water over the Kriti pathways are the waves.

I’ll miss the spontaneous smile of the elderly woman rag picker, who, on her circuit, lugs a huge bag of collected recyclables every morning. She will be happy in the knowledge that when she dies here in India’s holiest city her soul will be liberated from the cycle of death and rebirth.

It’s been a productive time here in Varanasi and I’m very happy with the way the project has evolved, I had no real idea as to what I’d be making happen, creating abstract embroideries was as far as I could imagine without having the knowledge of the skills available here in Varanasi. 

I now have a good collection of embroideries, and woodblocks to print from, for an exhibition at Te Pah Homestead gallery next year. It's been a great inspiring happy stay, the people here at Kriti and in Varanasi have a wonderful sense of humour and are some of the most friendliest and generous I've met.

The embroidery and woodblock stories have drawn on lives that are largely inhabited by India's poor - their tough lives, traditions and superstitions that I find hard to comprehend as a privileged Pakeha. Sometimes I think - do I have the right to comment on the lives of ones whose daily life is a struggle? - but these are the people I feel for, the ones I respond to, the ones I wish I knew the Hindi language for.

So it’s time to bubble wrap the woodblocks, fold the hand loomed silks and cottons, and package the embroideries. And eat my last Indian papaya.

And I'd like to thank once again The James Wallace Foundation and The Asia New Zealand Foundation for their financial assistance.

I’ll be back in Varanasi, in what capacity I’m not sure, only Lord Shiva knows that, and I hope you've enjoyed exploring with me. 
Here's my sumptuous feast waiting for me on the bed/eating platform.
These pix are not in order, I couldn't download them in order.

Bintu with his lovely wife Neelam, who cooked my lunch, and Bintu's mother in the background.
In the central area of their house - used for washing clothes, showering, and passing through.
Inspecting an embroidery using the ever present Indian paisley motif -
working title  'Caste System'
Who needs a designer kitchen?
I really did like the curried chicken, even if I know the conditions the chickens live under prior to being dismantled.
No Delhi Belli, only a cold of a few days - I'm sure the papaya kept the bugs at bay.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

“…but Ma’am, if we drew cartoons we’d get put in jail.”

It’s getting cooler, very comfortably - 26 degrees once the sun is up and a very sleepable 12 degrees at night. But it’s also the start of the wedding season and to kick it off the whole of Varanasi celebrates their weddings with noise - percussion, cymbals, drums, trumpets, loudspeakers projecting the noise into every corner, ill fitting glitzy uniforms and hats adorn skinny weathered village men paid to shamble with their instruments behind the bridal procession. 

I’m beginning to become a little apprehensive about returning to all the responsibilities that go with running a household, a dog - the domestic and the work routine - the grownupness of it all. It will have been nearly three months here in Varanasi of little verbal communication, lots of emotional self reliance, no routine (except Papaya every morning), I’ve been able to focus solely on making the ‘Abstract Embroidery and Woodblocking in Varanasi’ project happen. The time here at Kriti residency has been a retreat from everything that is familiar, including family and friends. I see why these times are valuable for trust in oneself to cope alone and to see if the creative drive is alive and well without the usual infrastructure. At least my sometime ‘less than tactful’ ways have not had many opportunities to embarrass anyone. 
The cliched expression - ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’ rings very true, and I hope I can find some sense of equilibrium amongst the multi-tasking that is my freelance artist life in New Zealand.

Being here is not like settling into a remote cave, I can walk out the gate and be thrown into the inexhaustible theatre of life, gather it all up in memories for a time when I might grumble about the state of potholes on the road, about a bus not being on time, about the cafe coffee not being hot enough. 

I want to include this long paragraph from ‘The City of Light’ written by the scholarly Diana Eck, she can explain the simple daily pleasures of the Banarsis (Varanasi dweller)
   ‘There is a special spirit among people who call themselves Barnasis, whether they are rickshaw pullers, merchants in the market, or the old aristocracy. It is the art of living, both passionate and carefree. They call it masti (“joie de vivre”), Mauj (“delight, festivity”) and phakkarpan (“carefreeness”). It is enjoyment of life without ostentation. Most of it’s pleasures are simple: a morning bath in the Ganges, clean and plain clothing, simple Dahl and rice, a boat ride to the far sandy bank of the river for a morning walk. A small parcel of delicate milk sweets, layered with pistachio and covered with thin silver paper, a mouthful of pan, betel nuts  and other condiments, wrapped in the tenderest and most succulent pan leaves, a tall frothy draft of thandai, laced with intoxicating bhang (legal marijuana paste) - these are the finest pleasures of the day. In the evening, there will be the clang of temple bells, and perhaps, later, some music. It is an ambiance of urbanity, good living, and culture, all of which comes to be synonymous with the word “Banarsi”.

I’m still on the search for perfect rickshaw canvas back flaps and have just today sourced (well..rather sliced off) three canvas’s that are now soaking in detergent laden water, the water is black. I find myself looking for canvas’s like a photographer looks for a good shot. I feel my reputation as a canvas trader is getting geographically wider and wider. On three occasions in different parts of the city I’ve been recognised, grinned and pointed at - I’ve felt a bit guilty about swiping off their back flaps, but have been reassured that the 150 rupees I’m paying them for a piece of dirty, shabby, canvas happily stupefies the drivers.

I spent a couple of hours this morning with my main embroiderer Ramesh and his translator son Bintu. I gave him three new designs to embroider, Ramesh likes to know what the stories are behind the embroideries so I explain them carefully and honestly to his son Bintu, who then explains them to his father. But, I have a feeling that Bintu’s explanations to his father are heavily edited - for the subject matter of these works are tough, bloody, and delicate, and would not make comfortable dinner table conversation. The ‘Mother India’ embroidery is a collection of breasts, both big and small (old and very, very, young) echoing the struggle of feeding and nurturing this giant population. Bintu told me he’d told his father they were hats. I can now see why they are not stuffed in the way I wanted them stuffed. In another - ‘Female Infanticide’ - Bintu told his father it was a design of someone who had a sick stomach - close.

I gave a ‘show and tell’ to the art students at The Faculty of Applied Arts, Benares Hindu University, yesterday - showed a powerpoint of my satirical illustration/caricature work and the creative process involved. Showed them a caricature of Trump - they will love whoever their adored president Modi loves, Modi passionately embraced Trump in a long bear hug shown widely on TV and in the newspapers - now Trump has millions of new fans. 
A student said he would be too scared to draw cartoons or caricatures of public or political figures as he would be likely to end up in jail, as what happened to a local cartoonist for ‘representing a chief minister in an obscene way’ just a couple of weeks ago. 

I’ve always been a bit cynical of ‘woo woo’ pursuits, but tomorrow I have an appointment with a recommended Indian astrologer, a fortune teller perhaps, he’s older, has been studying Indian astrology his whole life - he needs my birthdate, place and time of birth, and height. I’m told he will read my face. 

Winter has come suddenly along with the fashion of men wearing sparkly, synthetic wool knitted vests in colours of pale pinks, baby blues, pale yellows - at night they twinkle under lights. They look outrageous with those heavy black moustaches. 

It’s time to rinse those canvas flaps and hang them up. And I won’t let you know if my life predictions include winning Lotto.

At The Benares Hindu University, the largest University in India and the land was gifted
to the city by wealthy Maharaja's and the aristocracy. Built early 1900's.

Tanya Wilkinson and Prue Fea came to stay at Kriti for 8 days,
it was great to have two adventurous friends to explore with.

We went to Chunar 40 kms upriver from Varanasi, through rural village India,
explored the fort and discovered an old British cemetery.

Chunar is a village inhabited by craftsmen and women, carpet weavers, potteries.

I took Tanya and Prue around the corner to look for my rag picker friend, my sense of direction is
terrible here so we never found him to drop off some goodies. We found another rag picker colony
who were in the process of having their plastic, cardboard and paper, rags, and metal collections
weighed by a very obese middleman. Tiny amounts of money exchanged hands only to go
back into the rental of this piece of ground.

My desk, inhabited by beads, threads and Khadi (hand loomed) cotton pieces -
here I'm in the process of playing about with ideas related to the caste system. I'll choose each
bead colour and shape from the bead shop, then make directional diagrams showing the embroiderer the
design and in which direction and pattern the beads and the thread work should take. I then make an
accurate as possible colour painting of the embroidery and specify the cotton backing.

A side view of a wood block, the carver punches holes through the block to
release the vacuum when it's being pressed onto the fabric.

A piece in progress with the working title - 'Temple hair in NY'

An overlay showing bead design and direction, with the colour painting underneath. This piece
was inspired by a reputable report that states that 'India is the worst place in the world to be a woman'

My cheeky translator Bintu who tells tall stories to his Dad about my stories.

'Bhang' marijuaua is legally available over the counter here in Varanasi, it's one of the few cities in India
with such a ruling. It has a place in the holy scheme of things and for 40 NZ cents one can buy a small ball of this paste covered in silver paper, wrapped in glad wrap, and spend the night happily wandering the ghats,
or octogenarians can take it easy after a hard days relaxation. 

The dead, covered in glorious sparking robes of red, orange and yellow travel accompanied by chants,
through the streets of Varanasi on their way to the cremation grounds alongside the Ganges.

An artist applying gold leaf to a marble sculpture.

There are plenty of crumbly old buildings to satisfy a foreigners need for antiquity.

On the trail of Buddha's pilgrimage (I think) and someone practising fecal yoga in the field.

Early Mother Ganga.

© Anna Crichton & the Woodblock Carvers of Pethapur, India (Bharat)
Maira Gall