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.

Friday, 17 November 2017


A most exotic creature, a now rare canine breed who once adorned Maharaja’s lives and palaces is right now sprawled on my unmade bed. 
The brother and sister hounds are Indian miniature paintings come alive, especially positioned next door in Navneet's palatial family home/palace built in the 1920’s. Navneet’s father was telling me he has 25 staff to tend to the gardens, the cleaning, cooking and maintenance - and some of the staff have lived their whole life with Navneet's family and are as old and crippled as their elderly employers. Petra the wonder woman who runs the Kriti artist residency along with Navneet tells me it is like an old peoples home next door in the palace, the elderly tending the elderly.

I’ve been searching for rags and curious bits of old fabric that have stories hidden in their fibres. There are bundles of rags poked into corners, or just lying about, I’m assuming they are discarded, and to keep myself from karmic harm place rupees in the closest temple when I regime the rags. They will scrunch their unwashed way into the embroideries. Faded and a grimy orange colour the rags are, I’m supposing a Sadhu bought himself a new outfit.

The promise of my illustration workshop at Benares Hindu University, within the Applied & Fine Arts Faculty is being realised on the 30th November. I had a meeting with four, most likely tenured, moustachioed, jolly, Arts Professors and had a lively interrogation “What is your qualification?”, “what technique and medium do you use”, “what are your offerings to the students?” Strings of adjectives is the norm here, sorry, apologies, excuse me.

I tell them about my embroidery and block making project here in Varanasi, and how it mostly reflects the lives of the poor rural population and of women’s issues. They nod appreciatively, but I don’t seem to see any female art tutors as yet. It does not appear through looking at the work on the walls that there is an enormous amount of thinking outside the square, so I’m hoping I might get the students minds sloping off a bit.

I’d been feeling apprehensive about the puja for my father, and of the scattering of his ashes from a boat into the Ganges. I thought I’d fall to pieces, but no, it was an inspiring ritual of waving incense, repeating chants of ancient Sanskrit words after the Brahmin priest (hard), sprinkling water on my head and the blessed marigolds. So a small part of my father will now be swilling about in the Indian Ocean happy in the knowledge that he has been liberated from the cycle of death and rebirth and that his soul is clean and pure. 

I heard his words clearly during the ritual - “Anna, where am I, and what’s this hippy incense business”.  I said to the priest “ I don’t feel sad at all”, he replied “ Why should you, your father’s soul is free and clean”
He lives on, I feel transgender sometimes, like Gary (Dad) is knocking at my ribcage walls, and that I’ll start wearing blue V necked jerseys and Rieker shoes.

Tanya, Prue and I visit the priest’s Asi Ghat temple, the priests are reciting their chants but they stop to say hello and enquire as to where we come from - I tell them we are three goddesses from New Zealand, and that one day they must come and visit our god of the forest Tane Mahuta.

I saw on Titirangi neighbourly a posting that said ‘Do you have a problem with a pothole in your road?’ Very, very funny when most roads here consist of loose stones, rocks and sand. 

Past the truck and bus cemeteries we went to visit one of the few remaining block printing workshops, a large dark space with colour ink testing marks all over the walls, an on/off generator switch that a small man sits beside to switch back on every time it fails. They are block printing 400 four colour silk scarves, decorated with a paisley design (origin - the mango) with perfect eye/ hand precision even in such dim light. They will take 15 days to complete the order.

My plan is to go to this Muslim workshop for one day next week to make prints from my woodblocks onto fine hand loomed village silk. Google translate will have to be my interpreter.
I’m hoping they have a rich gold ink. My friends Tanya and Prue are here, it is good to have girly laughs and gossip - they’ve embraced Varanasi just like natives. No mind the cow poo, the acrid pissoirs, the smothering dust, the ear drum drilling horns. Ajay our learned translator tells us that he went to Sweden, and wondered what the ticking noise was that he could hear, it was his watch.

I’m reading Diana Eck’s ‘City of Light’, the ‘acclaimed study and interpretation of Bananas, the holy place of the Hindus’ - and just this morning while the Ranpur hound was sprawled across my bed I read that Annapurna is a gracious and luminous goddess and that ‘Anna’ literally means ‘the essence of life’. I have a lot of work to do on myself.

The most exotic creature I've ever had in my bed.

A grubby Sadhu fabric throwout, and stitching directions for a rag picker embroidery.

A small Zardozi underway, along with my instructions. Echoes of the cremations alongside the Ghats.

Ramesh and son found it not too hard to choose a Trump cartoon out of my offered pile.
They thought it was funny, I'm not sure quite why? 

It is a challenge to choose bead and thread colours  - 16 different reds, seven different golds....

Tanya the museum worker and Prue the architect are gorging on the visuals at every step.

Surrounded by seductive hand loomed silks. The Dalai Lama and the V&A Museum are customers.
Fine peacock feathers woven into silk weft, double brocades, thick Tibetan monastery wall hangings, contemporary designs, hundreds of hours hand weaving in one metre, and crafted in the dusty simple lanes of hidden Varanasi.

Washed my feet here, was tempted to go right under.

Whoever would imagine that Subhas carves a living out of beautiful designs from here in this obscure tiny space.
Inspection of the sterilisation wood block, he then demonstrated the ink application needed for a proof.

Three of the 400 wood blocked silk scarves, and the workshop I shall be printing my wood blocks in.

A concert of some of India's finest singers and musicians, very easy to fall into a sublime trance...

... and the very other end of the spectrum.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Guest is like God

I've been invited to lunch by Divanshi, the girl who swam across the Ganges and back. 

I think I'd prefer to be an ordinary mortal, especially if it means I don't have to spend the rest of my life here eating chapatis smeared with ghee, an acquired taste. Over lunch, well not quite over because I was the only one eating, Divanshi and her family watch me eat... so I must make many “mmmm” sounds, and I’ve been told it’s rude to refuse so I dip yet another ghee smeared chapatis into the Dahl soup. Mmmmm, hmmmm.  Divanshi’s father, a lovely man, and a local teacher, tells me that “guest is like God”. I should have dressed up if I’d known this, for I am wearing a ragged shirt, and cripple sandals. But I have my lipstick in my bag and they are amused that I don’t need a mirror, or perhaps amused because I didn’t follow my undefined lip outline.

I draw a loopy looking crayon kiwi on Divanshi’s bedroom wall and only wished I’d thought about the content more, I’m sure a kiwi with a topcoat, long red hair, double breasted jacket and a worm in it’s mouth is confusing and not at all pretty for a 14 year old girls bedroom wall.

Along the lane to Ramesh the bead embroiderer again, his brother in law is there, a man of 60 or so, oiled slicked back hair, intellectual glasses and he’s burning to find out my credentials.
“What is your qualification?”, What is your university?, where are you situated?, where are you presently? Where is my husband (get that all the time - he’s coming to Varanasi next week) - I answer all these questions very politely and colour them up a fair bit, hand him my card and he sees I’ve won a number of awards, and that is very impressive, he plasters a wide knowing grin on his face. He tells me he is a “very big lawyer with experiences” and I tell him I’d love to employ him as my defence lawyer if I ever needed one.

I like to talk about the stories behind the embroideries and woodblocks - everyone  seems delighted that I am “having feelings and expressions of high thinking” and there are nodding heads and agreements on my observations of the ones for whom life is a struggle in India. But I still am never sure whether the head nodding is an affirmation or not. I now have eight completed bead and stitching embroideries and six beautiful wood block designs. I need to source a book maker to stitch together pages to house the woodblock prints. More to come.

After demanding more than I should have from a very unelastic body in this mornings yoga I walk myself ragged six or so kilometres alongside mother Ganga. I know this pace is unwise but ‘I just must see a little more’. 

I meet a ragged creature crouching on the steps beside an ash covered, dreadlocked Sadhu. She’s European, a native French speaker, and says she’s from the Caribbean - green eyes, tiny pupils, covered in swathes of rough black cotton. I don’t dare ask her normal questions, she might just spirit my mind away. She is so beyond my comprehension of a European woman that I’m confused as to whether to take her seriously, or configure her as some sort of Holy/demonic character in a play. She asks me why am I here..I give her a straightforward answer and tell her of my project - briefly… as I see her powers of concentration on the ordinary are limited, she shuffles on the step, rearranges the bump on her lap under the cloth and says, “let me have 11 minutes to digest this information” I’m happy to watch her digesting, gives me a chance to look at her details.

She again shuffled the black cloth on her lap and I see what I thought I might see - a human skull, the crown, it serves as a drinking and eating vessel. She is an Aghori, they are known for their filthy rituals, the eating of human flesh, fornication with corpses, and covering themselves with ash from the cremation fires. Spiritual purification through immersing oneself into a world of filth. There is more, but I shall start to sound like a cheap Filipino newspaper. I’m told a true Aghori is rarely seen in public.

I needed to reach my favourite yoghurt stop, she wanted my mb no, said I didn’t own one - that felt good for a second, and said goodbye not before she said to me “have you tasted human flesh?’ and then she held the skull up to her mouth and slowly dragged her tongue across the crown.
I did look back, she was standing and watching me, I walked quickly.

Then a fortune telling Sadhu told me my golden years will be between 60 and 67 - that felt good. I said I had a tip for him, not to hold onto his cell phone when he is doing his readings, I told him it does not look professional.

I’ve been doing too much, in a quiet New Zealand world it wouldn’t be too much but the density and intensity with which this world moves can be shattering. Out there - ‘Mad dogs and Englishman’ sort of thing, even though ‘the noon-day sun’ is losing it’s intensity, the ever surging bodies beats the middle aged body about. Some days my verbal word count must be only 150 including my endearments to the Ranpur Hounds here at the Kriti residency.

Perhaps the millions of Gods and idols are burrowing into and under my skin for there is a sort of perverse internal peace that can be felt whilst manoeuvring ones way through the churning streets. I’m in a world of my own with my own internal temple, and my own Goddess buried deep inside, I feed her yoghurt and papaya every morning with the red sun rising. She must amuse herself, and be her own confidante. 

Just now arrived back from a congested, chaotic, diesel heavy rickshaw ride and I sure don't feel that perverse internal peace right now. Bring me a breeze of Waitakere air and a pound of silence.

A colour and stitching ways design for the womens collective located on the dusty unpaved outskirts of Varanasi,
over the river damned in places by piles of smouldering rubbish. 

Two designs - one a symbolic representation of the Ganga, old Varanasi city
and the other side of the river, the side of liberation. The other - the worn fingerprint,
the farm labourers worn out identity.

Child marriage - it still goes on, it's legal for a man to marry a 15 year old.

One of the two cremation Ghats - piles of wood ready for the fires.

Ones relatives choose from three types of wood for the funeral pyre, sandalwood being the most expensive. The bundle is weighed and paid for, if you are poor the wood vendor will sift through your ashes for gold and jewellery as payment.

Just to the left of the Sadhu you can see the European Aghori, she told me she has the power to become invisible.
I think she stole Harry Potters cloak.
There is no pension in India for anyone, you are at the mercy of your family,
or you push that tired old body on forever.

Great cauldrons of Dahl and rice are cooked and ladled out to the never ending streams of hungry
pilgrims who head to the Ganga for liberation. To stop the cycle of life and death.

An advertisement for what coconut oil can do for your hair.

Up at 4.30 am to head down to the Ganga for sunrise, and to hire a boat to send off Jocelyn's lock of hair,
and her adventurous spirit on a journey through India and into the world's oceans. 
There she goes, she's on yet another mission. Bye Jocelyn.

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