Sunday, 29 October 2017

'I'm going into Publishing'

I’m going into publishing, as they say (well once said) - 

RAGPICKER & CRICHTON LTD: Purveyors of Fine Quality Indian Debris Books - 
books to treasure, books that tell of the mysteries of lives lived on the streets.

I’ve just returned from a meeting with an organisation that looks after the welfare of nine different colonies - groups of the very poor who live a tough subsistence life…..the basket weavers, the rag pickers, the sewer cleaners, the sweepers, the rickshaw pedallers….
I’m hoping a group of young women from the rag picking colony are going to help me stitch together pages made from found materials - old cardboard, plastic, paper, rags, old saris. I might be being fantastical with my visualisation of these books but I'll have a go, and I’m sure the rubbish collectors will appreciate the extra money. The expectation is that the pages will be hand sewn together and stamped with the woodblock images I’m having carved, as the woodblock imagery is inspired by the more challenged here in Varanasi. The unexpected will happen - one must embrace the many unexpected interpretations. So on Monday I have an appointment to go to the rag picking colony with Anu and Mazahir from the Shambu Nath Singh Foundation. Will keep you posted in the next blog….speaking of posting, I wish to post some postcards, but I’m told not to go to any old PO as they look at the postcards and think ‘Oh that’s pretty’ and the cards rarely arrive at their destination.

So nice to not concern myself with having controllable hair, stylish hair, the perfect complexion, make up, weight gain or loss (the gain does drip off). Am going slightly feral, and a touch hippy, but I’m still presentable enough in my newly tailored clothes to eat a sumptuous Indian dinner outside on the lawn at a flash hotel (built in 1918 and and originally housed Varanasi’s Ministry of Education) a grand white colonial building last night - whilst the Diwali bombs are exploding all around us.

I’ve invested in what would be a fortune of earnings for a rag picker - in buying lengths of beautiful hand-loomed Khadi cottons and silks, ‘KHADI IS THE SYMBOL OF PURITY EQUALITY & NATIONAL INTEGRITY’ is the ‘in caps’ slogan on the Khadi bag. 
The tailor visits and is a clever copyist, but my first from-scratch garment resembled a badly fitting Izzy Miyake accordion. The cottons and silks come in many earthy colours and are also proving perfect to use as the backcloth for the embroideries. 

Ramesh has made a most beautiful job of my first bead embroidery…he is now my go-to bead man. Now I know how skilled he is in interpreting my very detailed drawings of shapes, colour ways and bead direction it gives me confidence to think up more complex imagery. That I wish to position the completed bead embroideries on dirty, ragged, pieces of rickshaw canvas he does not question. When I sit and drink chai from tiny clay cups at Ramesh’s house I am confused as to who has actually done the beadwork, he has three sons - I’m sure it’s a collective effort. 

How is it that the motorbike riding husband wears a full head helmet, while the wives and baby pillions perch sideways and are bare headed? This is very common, I wonder where the husband’s head is at. I’ve seen fierce road rages - usually a ragged rickshaw driver beaten up for not being fast enough to pedal out of the way of a self-important man driving a large SUV. But they will have their salvation as there are people on the roadside (I think you might call them ‘special people’) who do puja to the universe, to the millions of gods whizzing about and tucked into every crevice, to the dog eat dog life of the dogs, and to win the lottery.

The closest thing to me having a personal trainer happened today - I started yoga classes around the corner, past the gaping hold in the road (Auckland council would be sued for such a death trap) past many ‘holy cows’ and into the front of the decrepit yoga building. Detailed measurements are taken of all portions of my flabby body, I’m weighed (won’t reveal until much later ) and after one hour of yoga and stiff contortions I am weighed again, and…I have lost 700 grams, must of course be the water loss. Personal trainer asks “you exercise?’ I say I walk the dog a lot, but that’s all, she says “but why?” I say “because”. She says “but why?” again. I’ve been twice now and am well on the way to becoming a Guru. I was also instructed by the Ayurvedic instructor to focus deeply on my food when eating, eat alone and slowly, smell the food first to give time for the taste buds to be seduced, and if I do have to talk over food it must only be about the preparation, ingredients, cooking method and flavour of the food being eaten. Take note DH. Also no digital device, radio, or TV should be on. 

I am beginning to understand the expression ‘order within chaos” - the perfect order being the one that the millions of Indian Gods determine every step, every day. The effigies speak and tell when to plant the millet, of when the longed for baby boy will be conceived, who is going to answer that Ad in The Times of India wanting an educated, pale, slim girl for matrimony, Brahmin caste only. The Gods keep their word, for there is always another day, another season. It’s so refreshing to not have each of my days planned to the half hour.

It seems that if one is born here in Varanasi (and probably all of India) into a world where to survive one must be canny, inventive, quick, and entrepreneurial - the Indian street eye is sharp - the rickshaw driver can spy my foreign body language from miles away, there is always an endearing smile accompanying a serious negotiation, and a blessing.

I had detailed Hindi instructions on paper to find certain beads I need for the next Ramesh job, I don’t know what was written on that paper, but I think it must have said ‘give this foreigner a jolly merry-go-round around the market’ - after three hours of searching for this bead shop, four lassi’s and one masala dosa I gave up. Tomorrow is another day.

Messing about with thoughts, inspired by the street, books, the local dailies, talk.

Mhmd Nasir's Zardosi embroidery workpshop, I'm making sure I look thoroughly professional when making a close inspection of my second embroidered fingerprint. Not sure quite who is who, but all come on board to look at this foreigner's strange but hopefully lucrative ideas. Google translate is a miracle.

Once the design and colourways for the bead embroideries are complete, I then place butter paper over the design and draw in the direction the beads should move.

This dog looks so healthy, he must be one of the survivors, he's learnt the trick of carefully burying a very dry sliver of a bone in a very dry road next to a a very toxic open drain. Here he is nosing the last of the dirt over the bone. Instinct rules.

Be bold and wander into the courtyards of these crumbling Mughal multi storied relics...the internal courtyards provide a welcome cool and an ornate feast for new country eyes.

Tabla makers, true fingersmiths. Butterfly hands.

This is one for my daughter Eva when she looks in the mirror and finds her reflection disagreeable. His name is Billy, and you will always be able to find him, phoof!

It's not often one gets the opportunity to photograph grown women, but with the pretence of photographing the four hundred year old city gate behind her I found her beautiful face in the frame too. And Billy's lover.

Lovely man, bought me chai, we smiled a lot, I fawned over his work, and he gave me a piece of beaten edible silver.
Mr Subhas again, with the second of four pieces he has already carved for me...inked prints from these woodblocks will be stamped onto the rag picker books. All of these woodblocks and embroiderers have stories behind them, but I shall go more into those stories when I have my exhibition in Auckland next year.

'The Sad Tailor' - that's what another resident called him, but he gave me a great smile when I got a little provocative with the modelling of his latest job for me. Delivery by bike.

Friday, 20 October 2017


Sounds like bombs are exploding all over - it’s Diwali today, the equivalent of our Xmas where new clothes, sofas and white ware are bought,- going by the number of rickshaws with large refrigerator and washing machine packages, sofas, dining tables roped onto their backs. 

It’s still hot here…and one takes a deep breath before venturing out into the circus of the street - perched high atop a pedal rickshaw it’s the Varanasi show’s royal box seat, there is a slightly cooling breeze as grey/white haired pedaler moves me through ‘the charge of the auto rickshaws’. I choose the pedal rickshaw, it’s quieter and slower and I am in no hurry. I choose an old man driver too, as it’s an especially tough life for these older guys.

Back to Mr Subhas, Address: Kashmiriganj, Next to the Agra generator, Behind the old blue post office, Very difficult to find

Today to pick up my first completed woodblock carving - it is exquisite, and he has printed off the design on paper for me. So exact is the following of my design I am confident of commissioning more blocks. I give him my new design - he is very happy with this arrangement as most of his work is done through a middle man who takes a large cut. It is cool to know the wood used for these blocks once charged around India as part of a truck’s flat bed. We sit and talk, drink masala chai from small clay cups and eat Diwali celebratory sweets with silver foil on top. 

We move along the lane from Mr Subhas’s small rented shack/shed/studio/lean to…… to find a shop that sells thread and beads for Ramesh - who I hope will feel confident of beading an elaborate design I have for him. From floor to ceiling the bead seller stacks his plastic packages of beads, where do they come from and how are they made I wonder. I choose many colours, shapes of beads and threads - a luxury of being in India is that everything is affordable ten times over, and every purchase enquiry is accompanied with many more options than are displayed.

The completed fingerprint block is now sitting and soaking in a pool of mustard oil for 5 days to preserve the teak. There is an area in the old city where scriptures and books are made and sewn by hand, A small number of hand sewn books of the complete set of woodblock prints could be a good idea. The stories behind the embroideries are….tough - and celebrate the right to a life, and the preciousness of life.

At all times I’m looking to find street worn fabric to use as backgrounds for the jewel-like embroideries and am looked at strangely when fingering old cloth canopies, blinds, scraps and rags. But if they were to ask I’m sure I’d be readily believed if I said “this is a New Zealand custom, when mothers are missing their children from afar, they caress old fabrics to nostalge over their early maternal years’ - 

…..My Elusive God!!!!! I must interrupt - a giant explosion vibrated my room just now, - surely all the half dead dogs will revive for a minute or two.

I’m reading The Times of India and The Hindu, full of what we would consider unprintable scandal and desperate, scary, unbelievable news (who really knows?), no wonder all Indians wish to immerse themselves at least once in ‘Mother Ganga’ - a dip in the holy waters of Varanasi is said to wash away all sins.

I see Divyanshi outside a chai stall on one of my early morning walks, she is thirteen, holds her head proud and alert, and I see there is something unusually emancipated about how she interacts with the stall holder. I ask her directions and she speaks good English - “yes Ma’am, I can show you, but first you must come to my house” …so we manoeuvre our way through the precarious alleys and reach the home of her teacher father, housewife mother and widow grandmother. She is so excited and I find out later that this is the first time in her life that she has had the opportunity to speak her mid-school English on a native English speaker. She has also swum across the Ganges and back and is a black belt in Taekwondo - no wonder she had a presence - and well armed to become the policewoman she wants to become.

I speak of my need to find a bead embroiderer, and…of course, there is a one elderly Mr Ramesh four doors down who does just that. We meet up, I drool over his sample embroideries and make an arrangement to visit in two days time with a design and a collection of beads. 
The one and only accessory in his internal concrete courtyard is a large green parrot in a hanging cage who makes very odd mammalian-like sounds “whoareyou, whoareyou, whoareyou”.

I eat ‘idli’ on the way home - savoury cakes made by steaming a batter consisting of fermented black lentils and rice. Then a mixture of sambar - a chowder cooked with a tamarind broth is poured over the top.

12.15 pm, 19 October India time: Just heard - Gandhi would be proud of you Jacinda.

Later, it’s dark and the explosions are war-like, if I didn’t know it was Diwali I’d be traumatised! 
The aim is to make the biggest BOOM! - not to make pretty lights in the dark sky. I put my earplugs in and begin to decipher the enclosed world within my head.

Mr Subhas, the block carver, inspecting the design for his second commissioned woodblock.

A golden fingerprint, precious identity worn away by a life of heavy, unrelenting labour.

Ramesh - the bead embroiderer, his wife's chai was so so sweet, but I had to drink it.

And Divyanshi - the girl who swam to the other side of the Ganges and back.

Dusk comes quick here, and just before darkness I 'stumbled' into the buffalo milking quarters. Drank the warm raw milk, and then remembered that it should be boiled first for our tender Aryan stomachs. 

A man boiling milk for tomorrow's yoghurt, the photo looks a bit 'National Geographic' but is quite contextually random.

Naveet's family home next door with two suitably royal Ranpur hound dogs. Must borrow some sugar from here too one day.

The Zardosi Muslim embroiderers do not celebrate Diwali so today they are busy stitching. Shall make a visit to present them with a curious design one day.

The white bearded rickshaw driver has stitched an old shirt onto to the top of a slightly newer one.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Finding the Magicians...


Wake up, more like blown up, from the action of the furious overhead fan, though perhaps a wiser cooling system than the aircon which tends to jam and spit fire when the geckos get stuck inside. I notice this morning that the toilet paper roll has a hand applied piece of sellotape to secure the loose end.
Morning yoghurt made with milk from the resident cow, and papaya from the fruit stall out the front of the Kriti Residency. 
Visited the Khadi shop selling cottons hand loomed in village India, a large portrait of Gandhi oversees all goings on, happy in the knowledge that there are still spinners and weavers in rural India. But for how much longer. Beetle juice stained teeth and raw cotton Kurta pyjamas, the three smiley elderly men removed endless folded cottons from the shelves for my approval. I bought three lengths, a browny colour, a greenish-blue colour and a finely striped orange and green length. They will be made into drawstring trousers, a practical design for swatting on the floors of embroiderers and blockmakers workshops.
Must get to work, there are serious distractions in Varanasi, but fortunately one is forced back into the retreat of the studio because of the demands of of this 2 million plus city - so what else to do but focus on the reason why I am here, no meals to make, no house to clean, no old friends, a big empty agenda. So I fill my pages with concepts that may work as embroideries and wood block carvings…inspiration from the street, the Times of India, books…it’s hard suddenly working a more abstract way, I keep slipping into the more literal, I want to evoke a story, feeling, without saying much at all, I know what I like, and what moves me, but to translate these feelings of a very foreign world (which is my plan, for now) is more difficult than imagined.
Translating feelings into words is hard too - sitting on my doorstep under an unfamiliar tree an empty seedpod fell at my feet, shaped like two hearts joined lightly - open yet empty, two parts separated from each other. Fallen. Not to get up again. That is another very very recent story.
Then an academic occasion, a lecture by the eminent ‘I Can’t Remember his Name’ a seventy something year old man speaking on ‘What is India’. An educated, elegant, elderly, Indian audience all nodding their heads in what appeared to be approval (one never knows with the nods)…but it’s so hot, his accent is so strong, my left ear is blocked and from what I could decipher he has very old fashioned ideas about women, and over samosas and chai afterwards an elderly gentleman held out his hand and cupped it and said - “he could have fitted all his words into here”. I agreed.
The next day - through the narrow lanes on a 150cc motorbike, helmetless and carefully driven by Ajay we arrive at Vinod Pandepors embroidery workplace, a small shuttered space right on the road front. We drink chai, and I show my designs while Away translates perceptively for me. I get Ajay to describe the stories behind the images as understanding what they are working on I feel is important. We talk thread colours, backing fabrics, size. I ask Ajay what they think of the stories…he says they would like to put them up on their wall so they can talk about them (or talk about the strange foreigner who paid them to make them). Anyhow I let myself be flattered and tell him there shall be more talking points to come if this first works out as I imagine?. I do not wish to elaborate too much on where I’m heading with this embroidery as I foresee my expectations that are swirling in my head, are very likely to morph into quite something else. But the journeys are full. So Mhmd Pandepors will have a part embroidered piece for me to check on in one (very flexible) week. Now off to Mhmd Subhas’s workplace where he and his son are two of the few hand carvers carving intricate woodblocks for printing designs on fabric. Mhmd Subhas’s father, grandfather and now son have learnt the craft. Mhmd Subhas goes to the local recycling yard and buys teak wood  from were once the flat beds of trucks. Not an electric tool in sight - over chai in tiny plastic cups we discuss my design, talk colours and size and once again I think it important to translate the story behind the image. I can’t help but ask to see more of his carved woodblocks lying about his workplace, such fine detail. They translate the image onto the white painted top of the wood piece by placing butter paper with the design on it, then poking tiny holes through the paper to transfer the design onto the wood. 
Some of the pedal rickshaws about have light green/grey ripped, dirty and worn canvas canopies atop, supported by a bamboo frame - I have an idea - to truly echo the street world of Varanasi I’d like to buy from the rickshaw drivers a piece of their canopies to use as backings for my embroideries. I don’t quite know what Ajay really thinks of this idea but I put it past him and he does not seem too bewildered. I spy a very tatty canopy, just perfect for my use and flag the weary driver down - Ajay puts the proposal to the driver and offers him a generous sum of money on my behalf - hopefully enough for him to buy a new canopy. The driver is keen, a razor blade is found, and the piece removed. The word gets out and I have many drivers offering me a slice of their canopies, two more are suitable ragged so out comes the razor again.
We head back - not before I stop to watch a young girl tightrope walker, five pots on her head, and a dish under one foot, walking in the air above the street.  I see the concentration in her eyes, I only wish she could be concentrating on an alphabet that would enable a bigger life. But who am I to judge? 

The neighbours....a crumbling reminder of an exotic past, but now of an independent now. Might just have to borrow a cup of sugar one day.

It fell from above, not unexpected, must accept.

The mighty river Ganga, and the afterlife shore.

A riverfront creation designed by a disciple of Corbusier, very nice internal Miroesque windows. Tiny bricks in haphazard patterns. The place where 'Mr I don't remember his name' gave his highly intellectual talk on 'What is India'.

Mr Vinod Pandeypur, 4 children, earns R250/300 per day ($NZ6) and has to pay the owner of the rickshaw R50 per day.

Mr Vijay Kumar, not married, no dreams - 'God will look after me'.

A wide angle me explaining in gesticulation language my embroidery instructions to Mhmd Nasir.

The second embroidery workshop - a dark grubby hole in the wall from where beauty emerges.

A workshop photo taken just purely because I liked the light bulb, found on the way to finding the wood block carver.

Mhmd Nasir's son working on a fabric design woodblock, no electrics at all. Carved from teak ex-truck flat bed wood.

And the bistro wood block carver Mhmd Nasir, who has rung me five times today, even though I can't understand a word of what he is saying I am interpreting that he is telling me he has finished my first wood block.  

A Mhmd Nasir wood block ready to deliver to a fabric printing workshop.

A much tougher life than being at school, take note my dear children.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017



Delhi was a trip inside a washing machine full of debris, precious lives living precariously, stuff I wouldn’t want to see again and stuff I wouldn’t want to describe - but my eye must be drawn to such things for they are not what I know, I am in wonder as to how humanity can continue on to the next day. But amongst all the rag pickers, the sewer cleaners, rickshaw pedderlers, the ones who sleep everywhere, on ledges, roundabouts, berms in the middle of the road, planks of wood struck across precarious objects…there are spontaneous ready smiles- everywhere - think I have picked up more smiles here in India than the last 10 years in NZ. They are free - the best deal in town, get one with your yoghurt skimming the top of the small clay pot, get one with that strange fruit you must try, and get one after a healthy negotiation. 

There is a perverse romance in the medieval nightlight of the streets , white dhoti’s, sweaty backed cheap striped rickshaw pullers shirts hung over their decrepit leased contraptions. All the food trolleys appear at 5 pm - fried stuff, dosa, sugar cane juice and pomegranate juice extractors. Imagery overload… to begin to figure how the machine works, but it does for 1.25 billion people. That’s well over one million million!. But back to the first day in Varanasi in my spacious studio with attached bedroom, bathroom and a very very welcome air conditioner. Petra and Navneet, the couple who have made this residency facility possible tell me the weather will turn in two weeks - we’ll see but hell I hope so, but I also know that one adjusts and learns tricks to keep cool, regularly wet a hand loomed Gandhian cotton scarf and drape it around ones shoulders or wrap it around the head. 

Two days I’ve been here, really one, as the first was a mental scramble. I have plans this week to meet up with a translator who will help me communicate with various people on the streets, under the bridges, in the shanties, behind the walls - to talk about their stories. With their stories and possibly with the shirts off their backs or that ragged piece of rickshaw tarpaulin  I wish to embroider their story. I’ll leave it there, things may morph and change, their speed of happenings is not our speed of happenings, my creative plans just might land upside down. But there will be something, that’s what I’m here for and it is exciting, especially as I can easily afford to pay the craftspeople I wish to employ. Found my self celebrating a famous Tibetan monk’s birthday who only comes out of seclusion two days each year from his hideaway in the hills above San Francisco. We drove to Sarnath, a city located 13 kilometres north-east of Varanasi near the confluence of the Ganges and the Varuna rivers in Uttar Pradesh, India. The deer park in Sarnath is where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma. The monastery here has been built with the money earned from the famous monks publishing empire - the biggest publisher of Buddhist scriptures. It’s where Tibetan monks come to learn English so they can go out and spread the word. 

Got to just sit (with the aircon on) and scribble away tomorrow, make some meaningful abstract marks on paper, if there is such a thing, to show these craft magicians. Actually I feel a calm cool beginning to happen this morning, best to welcome the warmth. Fighting just makes for ‘heatiness’ so the Soloman Island pidgin English speakers say.
Just landed, here's my suitcase looking bewildered in the middle of the studio.

There is a bathroom, and until I learn how to turn on the shower, a bucket for dousing. Should have visited the Toilet Museum (for real) in Delhi, could have added a few more scintillating photographs to this one 
...and a bed, and an extra for the visiting geckos.

The studio entrance photo, which should be at the top but I don't know how to get it there. This shall be my home and workplace base for the next three months, I feel already they will fly by.

© Anna Crichton and the small book 'Dear Virus...'
Maira Gall